Harrison Scott Key

book covers for Harrison Scott Key's three books

Meeting the author

Roughly nine years ago, I attended a reading by a local author at the Book Lady’s Bookstore in Savannah, Georgia.  I heard about the reading through Facebook. The book sounded interesting. At the appointed time, I left the slow life of the island for the hustle of the city and the struggle for parking places.  Upon entering the bookstore, I was excited to see a stack of yellow paperbacks with deer antlers stacked by the register.  “Hot dang,” I said to no one in particular, “Patrick McManus has a new book out.”  

Then I saw the author’s name, Harrison Scott Key: the dude doing the reading…  The air left my sails. Who was he? Key’s book utilized the same color scheme as had McManus. The antlers had me all excited..  

Then the reading started.  Harrison began by handing out PBRs. (That’s Pabst Blue Ribbon, in case you don’t know, the cheap beer from college days that’s now back in fashion).  Harrison wasn’t taking any chances with his audience.  Lubing us up, he soon had us laughing.  By the time he was half way through the reading, I knew I would be buying his book.  I thoroughly enjoyed it, pushing aside two other books that I was reading. His book was as good those written by McManus .

A few years later, I was at the party for Key’s second book reveal. It was held in the gardens at the Ships of the Seas museum in Savannah. He had definitely outgrown the “Book Lady Bookstore” as there were several hundred in attendance including Key’s three daughters. Not only did he sign my book, one of his daughters drew me a picture on the title page. Since I no longer live near Savannah, I was unable to be at his last book kickoff. It’s also his only book that’s not signed! Below, in addition to reviewing Key’s recent book, I included reviews of his first two books which I posted in earlier blogs.

Harrison Scott Key, How to Stay Married: The Most Insane Love Story Ever Told 

(New York: Avid Reader Press, a division of Simon and Schuster, 2023), 307 pages, no images. 

I finished the book a month ago and spent a lot of time thinking about it. How to Stay Married is an incredibly honest book. Key is honest about his desire to remain married despite his wife Lauren’s infidelity. He’s honest about mistakes he made. And he’s honest about his wife’s baggage. As for the latter, I might offer one more suggestion to Key, if he wants to stay married long-term, “Don’t write the book!” But it’s too late for that advice and Key has given us his story in a way that shows how messy our lives can be.

How to Stay Married can be very painful. It hits at places I’ve been in my life. It forced me to realize I haven’t always done everything, I should do to make the best out of relationships. Yet, the book is very funny. Key is a modern-day Mark Twain (and some of his insights into the Old Testament are very Twainesque). It’s an insightful book into human relationships, the church, scripture, and how our families influence our lives.

The Key’s move to Savannah when Harrison accepted a position at Savannah College of Art and Design. In time, they have three daughters, become active in Independent Presbyterian Church, and live in a quaint and comfortable home in a pleasant neighborhood. They become friends with neighbors and their children play with other kids. Unsuspectingly, Chad and Lauren have an affair. Chad is married and the father to some of the neighborhood kids. Both families have (or had) cookouts together. Key, who changes the names of key actors in the story, portrays this man in a comically plain manner. He wonders what his wife ever saw in such a boring ordinary person. 

Lauren wants out. Harrison wants them to work on their marriage and fears what will happen to their children.

Harrison seeks help from the pastor of his church, whom he names “Hairshirt.” He tells him his situation, in the hope to learn how he offer suggestions to save his marriage.  The pastor, not hearing Harrison’s plea, says his wife will have to confess and repent or be excommunication. This shocks Harrison, who imagines pitchforks being brought out. He wants to reconcile with his wife, not a witch trial. The pastor is from the Presbyterian Church in America, a very conservative branch of Presbyterianism. Harrison names him “Hairshirt” (think of those strict ascetic self-flagellating medieval monks). Afterwards, they leave the church and find a new church home.  In addition to encourage the reader to fight for a marriage, the book could also be used as an example of how not to provide pastoral care. 

While Harrison is estranged (at first just moving to separate rooms and later his wife moving to an apartment), he reads the Bible and provides interesting commentary on it. He spends time searching his and his wife’s past. His wife was from a broken home. Her father, also a Presbyterian Church in America pastor, abandoned his wife when Lauren was a child. Further turmoil came from their marriage. With Lauren’s mother dying of cancer, they move up their date in the hope she’d be able to be present. But she dies before the wedding. Their marriage begins in a rocky manner, but eventually things leveled out, or so he thought. 

Later in the story, after Lauren moves out, she realizes what she’s throwing away. She calls Harrison, who rushes over to her apartment and packs up her stuff. They also find places Lauren can live to keep Chad from seeking her out. By the book’s end, Harrison and Lauren are slowly rebuilding their marriage. 

As I said earlier, this is an insightful and extremely honest book. We see all sides of the main characters, good and bad. At times, I thought Harrison’s character was overly virtuous, but I had to admire the effort he made to save the covenant of his marriage. Thinking back 40 years, I wondered what would have happened had I been so determined. Harrison reminds us that marriage is often difficult and requires work. It would have been easy for him to have thrown in the towel and found someone else. While tempted, but he stood fasted and remained open for reconciliation because he loved his wife and wanted the best for his children. 

I am glad I read this book and recommend it to others. 

Harrison Scott Key, The World’s Largest Man: a memoir 

(New York: Harper, 2015), 336 pages plus 15 bonus pages including an essay by the author on memoirs along with additional information about the author.

The World’s Largest Man is about Key’s father and his own quest to become a father.  When Key was a child in elementary school, his father moved the family from Memphis, where you went to church to learn about the dangers of premarital sex). They moved to Mississipp

\i (where you went to church to engage in such sex).  (19).  According to Key, Mississippi is where crazy people believe what can’t be shot should be baptized (16), and children often learn child-birth before long division. (37) Here, Key was taught the ways of the woods.  

One early adventure was dove hunting at daybreak in which he realized that problem with the proverb about the early rising bird getting the worm.  They also get murdered. (32) Some readers may be offended by Key’s frankness concerning sex. In a few occasions he hints at the involvement of livestock.  I wasn’t overly shocked as I once had a boss from Mississippi named Ron. One night after a few beers where he told us about a boy from his school…  I’ve been through Mississippi, but Ron’s stories had always reminded me there was no need to linger.  Key has reminded me again of the wisdom of passing through and keeping your windows rolled up.   

Key keeps the humorous zingers coming as he tells about deer hunting, fighting at school, his first love, football and baseball.  He also shares about his father’s tough discipline and his mother’s love.  At times, as the reader, I felt contempt for his father. And then, at other times, I couldn’t help but admire him.  Key’s old man went out of his way to help children. He continued coaching little league baseball and football long after his boys had grown up and moved on.  Key always felt he was not living up to his father’s standards (something most boys feel, or at least I did).  

After high school, there is a gap and Key picks up his story when he is in grad school and is married.  He worries what his new bride will think of his family and there are some funny episodes around her first visits to Mississippi for holidays.  Once they have children, he sees another side of his father.   His old man loves grandchildren.  Eventually, Key is able to encourage his parents to move to Savannah where he is a professor at SCAD (Savannah College of Art and Design).  A month later, his father dies of a heart attack.  

In the second part of the book, we see Key’s struggling to be a man and protecting his wife and three daughters.  Having grown up around guns, he marries a woman who wasn’t a “gun person. He leaves his guns with his parents.  One night, he arms himself with a serrated kitchen knife to check out a possible bad guy.  As Key says, “it would have come in handy had he come across an angry Bundt cake.”  (273)  After his father drops off his old shotgun and they experience a break-in, he obtains shells for the shotgun.  But then, he realizes it was a foolish idea, He adds motion sensor lights outside of his house and an alarm system.  

The last part of the book may not carry the humor of the earlier part of the book, but it has an honest feel as Key struggles to learn what it means to be good husband and a good father.  There is a tenderness to how he writes about his family and his aging father.   Key recalls the old truism from the country that things can kill you can also make you feel alive (238), but a few pages later he acknowledges that what really makes us alive is love. (246).  This is a book written in love, which is why I recommend it.  McManus has some good competition as does other Mississippi writers such as Willie Morris.  

I also liked the supplemental information provided at the end of the book.  These include tips about writing about one’s family, an essay on memoirs (a term Key detests), more biographical information, and his top ten list of funny writers of which I’ve only read four (Charles Portis, Douglas Adams, Flannery O’Connor and Mark Twain).   Key acknowledge at the front of the book that he had changed many of the names (since most of them have guns).

Harrison Scott Key, Congratulations, Who Are You Again? A Memoir

(New York: Harpers, 2018) , 347 pages including five appendices and no illustrations except an ink figure of a dog drawn by Beetle, the author’s daughter, while I waited for him to sign my book.

 Over the years I have enjoyed reading memoirs by authors as I learn how they approach the craft and gleam advice for myself. Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life, Eudora Welty,’s One’s Writer’s Beginning, Robert Laxalt’s, Travels with My Royal: A Memoir of the Writing Life, and Dee Brown’s When the Century was Young are books that come to mind.

I’ve also read many “how-to” books by authors who tell us how to approach the craft. Without looking at my shelf, I can recall Stephen King, “On Writing; William Zinsser, On Writing Well; Ray Bradbury, Zen and the Art of Writing; and John McPhee, Draft #4. All these authors of memoirs and how-to books have an impressive list of publications under their belt when they sat down to give advice on writing. Harrison Scott Key decided he’d write his how-to memoir immediately following the publication of his first book. But then, his first book won the Thurber Prize.

 I enjoyed reading Congratulations, Who Are You Again? even though I am not sure I would have called this a memoir. I’m not sure what it is.

Part of the book reads like a “how-to” manual for becoming famous and having a best seller. Another part of the book is the author’s quest to find discover his life’s purpose as he charges through much of his 20s and 30s like Don Quixote. Part of this books appears to be a sure-fire way to receive a summons to divorce court. Another part of this book is  Mr. Key’s depository for lists. And just in case you didn’t have your fill of lists within the text, Key fills his appendices with lists. What is it about all these lists? I was wondering why he didn’t include a grocery list, but concluded that maybe his wife, out of gratitude for now having more than one toilet in the house, has volunteered to shop for the family.

My hunch is that Mr Key’s lists are actually passwords. What a better way to keep them close at hand than to have a book he can pull off his shelf and quickly recall his password for Facebook or Twitter or maybe even First Chatham Bank. And, one final “what is it…” What is it about depressed people and pelicans? Key speaks of his interest in these “freakish and ungainly” birds while depressed. Personally, I find pelicans graceful. A former professor of mine, Donald McCullough, while dealing with depression, published a book titled The Wisdom of Pelicans. Like my former professor, I find pelicans graceful, not freakish. I’m not sure what’s wrong with Mr. Key. Maybe I should give up watching pelican’s fish, but that sounds too depressing.

That said, this is a funny book. And writing a funny book is one of Mr. Key’s life goals. He’s now achieved this goal twice, first with The World’s Largest Man, and now with Congratulations. Although Key acknowledges his indebtedness to a host of authors, he never mentioned the fabulous 1940 movie, “Sullivan’s Travels,” staring Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake. In “Sullivan’s Travels,” McCrea plays a movie producer who wants to make a movie about the seriousness of the Great Depression in order to move people to respond in compassion. But after a misfortune, he has an epiphany and realizes people also need to laugh. Sullivan learns this wisdom after at the end of the film. Key comes this conclusion on page 49. 

 My third complaint about Key’s writing (my first complaint was his lists, my second was his rude remarks about pelicans) is his overuse of misdirects. Key describes the great things that follow his things such as being published. Following such good news, Key rambles on about all the invitations to TV and radio shows to make an appearance. He seems to have a healthy crush on NPR’s Terry Gross. Others ask him to give keynote speeches. He’s also mugged by admirers on Savannah’s streets.

Just when the reader is about to believe there is a god who awards hard work, the reader is redirected into what really happened. Usually nothing. The exception is an actual mugging on Savannah’s streets. Actually, Key never wrote about being mugged, but it could happen. These redirects were funny the first 57 times this reader fell for this comic technique, but the 58th time was just too much. As I was coming to the end of the book, I thought that if there was one more redirect, I’d rip the book apart and toss it out the window. Thankfully, being near the end, I was reading lists and it’s pretty hard to redirect a reader from a grocery to a household chore list. I never knew lists could be funny.

  Complaints aside, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and laughed a lot. My biggest take-away from Mr. Key is that writing is like giving birth. I’ve heard that before, but Key attaches his unique twist that refreshes this platitude: “Writing is like giving birth, and it is, it is just like giving birth, in the Middle Ages, when all the babies died.” (114). Writing is hard work, and such hard work in this case produces a book that the reader can easily read and enjoy.

 And one final comment for clarification.  I am not the minister who accosted Keys in a restaurant asking to be included in his next book. Such a request is foolish for if Keys says the things he does about his wife and children, whom he obviously adores, what would he say about a coveting minister. Of course, the minister did find himself in the book, only he’s not identified. 

Good Friends

title slide with photo of Kure Beach, NC

Jeff Garrison
Mayberry and Bluemont Churches
February 18, 2024
Mark 2:1-12

At the beginning of worship:

Last Sunday, I spoke about atonement. In our story from Mark’s gospel, we see that Jesus essentially trades places with the leper. I suggested this foreshadows what Jesus does for us on the cross. There, Jesus pays the price for our sin. 

However, we must be careful and not attempt to bind God in our own ideas. Yes, Jesus trades places with us to atone for our sin. But whether such substitution atonement for our sin is required can be debated.[1]

Ultimately, we must confess, the forgiveness of sins is something only God can do. And how God achieves forgiveness for us is up to God. We’ll see another way one is forgiven in today’s scripture passage. Jesus forgives a man without him asking for forgiveness, and long before his crucifixion.[2]

And forgiving sins gets Jesus in trouble. Upsetting the apple cart will cause that, and Jesus certainly did his share of upsetting the proverbial apple cart with the religious folks of his day. We should always be careful and remember that God is in charge. 

Before reading the Scriptures:

Let me recap the last couple of Sundays. Two weeks ago, we saw Jesus leave Capernaum so he could preach in the towns and synagogues of Galilee. Then, last week, we saw how he healed a leper when he was out on this mission. We don’t know how many towns and synagogues Jesus visited. We’re only told about this healing. It made Jesus so popular that he was unable to continue going into the towns because of the crowds. So, he begins to teach in the countryside and allow people to come to him. That’s all we learn about this mission. 

As we begin the second chapter, we learn that Jesus has returned to Capernaum. But, of course, the crowds find him, which is our stetting for the story today. 

Furthermore, we now are informed of opposition to Jesus’ work. Jesus came to proclaim that the kingdom of God has come near.[3] By proclaiming God’s kingdom, Jesus implies that this world doesn’t belong to Satan or evil powers, but to God. And we’ve seen how the minions of evil, spirits, and demons, challenged Jesus. Now we’ll see the attack coming from the scribes, the religious leaders of the day. 

Read Mark 2:1-12

Jesus returns to where his ministry began, Capernaum. I get a sense from the text that he may have been tired from his Galilee wanderings, and he retreats to his home. But it doesn’t take long for the word to get out that the hero has returned. Again, as we’ve seen, people flock to see Jesus and he resumes teaching. The room fills with people. People block the door, and we can imagine fill the yard around the house in the hopes to listen in through the windows This crowd reminds us that there were no fire marshals in the first century to regulate how many people could safely gather in one spot. 

Again, as we’ve seen before,[4] Mark leaves off the details about what Jesus said. The story instead illustrates something else. Mark shows how the opposition to Jesus grew. While Jesus heals a man, the story goes deeper than Jesus just being a Great Healer.

A group of people bring a paralyzed friend in the hope Jesus can help. We’re not told who they are or how they are related to one another. We only know they are on a mission. And their mission, the healing of their friend, demonstrates their faith. 

As they arrive, I’m sure, they’re overwhelmed. There are so many people who have gathered around the home in which Jesus is teaching that there is no way to get their friened inside. But these are determined friends. 

Palestinian homes at this time often had steps on the outside that led up to the roof terrace. Back then, space was a premium and it was economical to have the steps outside. The roof was an important part of the home in an arid climate. Especially in the morning and in the evening, when the sun wasn’t intense, people would hang out up there. It was a place to eat dinner and dry clothes and watch the sunset. These roofs were supported by beams, topped with reeds and limbs, and then covered of clay.[5]

These determined friends, noticing the empty roof, take their friend up the steps. They dig through this roof and four of them, each holding onto a corner of the man’s mat, lowers the man down to Jesus. It’s quite comical, I think. With the digging and commotion, it’s a wonder Jesus continued to teach. 

Imagine the dirt and reeds falling. Jesus and those around him brush twigs and sand from their hair. And then, descending as if in an elevator, the paralytic drops before Jesus. The friends of this man set things up in a way in which Jesus must act. There’s no way he can ignore the unnamed man. 

The faith and determination of this man and his friends impress Jesus. He says something that at first seems out of character. “Child, your sins are forgiven.” By calling the man a child or son, I don’t think Jesus meant that he was a kid. It was more endearing term which implies that, like a child, he’s totally dependent on others.[6]

But what about his sins. We read this situation and immediately think, he doesn’t need forgiveness, he needs healing. (Of course, we all need healing). But there was a belief at the time, supported within the Hebrew scriptures, that illness was often related to sin.[7]

If you think about it, sometimes someone can be so ashamed by what they’ve done that the shame incapacitates the person.[8]Now, they may still be able to walk, but they have a hard time functioning in society. Shame, which results from sin (unless one is a psychopath and without a conscience[9]), can be destructive. However, the man in the story appears to have many friends, which makes me lean toward thinking his illness comes not just from shame. 

We are not privy to the cause of this man’s illness. In a way, this story is not about the man healed nor his friends. It’s an encounter with the scribes. Jesus plants a clue as to his identity, but they are too blind to see.

Jesus, by forgiving sins, raised the eyebrows of the scribes, the religious leaders of the day. This was blasphemy, they think. Only God can forgive sin. And they’re right.

If we think about what Mark does in his gospel, he makes the case that Jesus is God. Jesus’ power is divine. He dominates evil spirits, heals diseases, controls the weather, and rises from the grave.

Knowing the scribes think that Jesus’ blasphemy deserves a good stoning,[10] Jesus decides to have some fun. He confronts their thoughts and the condition of their hearts. Then he asks a question that seems simple, but it’s not. “What’s easiest, saying your sins are forgiven or commanding the man to stand up and walk?” The first, the forgiveness of sins, implies the power of God. Unless you’re God, to pull that off is impossible. Furthermore, how can it be demonstrated? We don’t know the condition of the heart of another person. 

But the latter, telling a man to pick up his mat and take it home, can be observed. So, Jesus, to demonstrate his power (he’s the Son of Man), orders the man to pick up mat and take it home. And he does. Interestingly, as I pointed out earlier, neither inflicted man nor his friends say anything. They essentially serve as a prop to make a point to the scribes. While Jesus is impressed by their faith, from that point out, this is a story of conflict between our Lord and the scribes. 

As I’ve said, the scribes are right. Only God can forgive sins, but they are unable to see the divinity of Christ. I think Mark tells this story so that we might accept Jesus’ divinity. Jesus has the power to heal us, to forgive our sin, and to offer us life everlasting. Are we going to be like the scribes, who judged Jesus in their hearts? Or will we be like those present who were amazed and glorified God?

We must be careful in our judgements. I’ve been reading Russell Moore’s Losing our Religion: An Altar Call for Evangelical America. He writes about how the religious leaders of his day decided the way for them to protect their position of authority was to make an alliance with those they hated, Imperial Rome. Summing up this thought, he warns of the danger of atheism in the church, with the most destructive form of atheism being those which think they believe in God.[11] Sadly, some people may proclaim faith, but their faith is in themselves. 

Were the scribes protecting God (who doesn’t need protection) or protecting their own power? Jesus, I think, exposes their atheism. They believe, not in God, but in themselves. 

What might we take from this passage? Certainly, we should see the divine nature of Jesus. We’re called to worship Jesus as Lord and Savior and God. We’re called to follow him and to place his interest above our own. 

Next, we also might take a lesson from our unnamed disciples in the story who brought the man to Jesus. Who might we help bring someone to Jesus? First, as we see in this story, discipleship is a group effort. Second, we need not to be deterred by obstacles (such as the crowded home). If we make the effort, as we see in today’s text, Jesus just might reward our faith by responding. Amen. 


[1] There are several theories of atonement. Gustad Aulen, Christus Victor (1931) outlines three main theories (Ramson, Substitution, and Moral Persuasion) and then presents a modified form on Ramson (Christ the Victor). 

[2] Brian K. Blount, Go Preach! Mark’s Kingdom Message and the Black Church Today (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1998), 174. 

[3] Mark 1:15.

[4] See Mark 1:21ff or my sermon on the text:  https://fromarockyhillside.com/2024/01/21/jesus-in-the-synagogue/

[5] James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 74-75. 

[6] Douglas R. A. Hare, Westminster Bible Companion: Mark (Louisville, Westminster/John Knox Press, 1996), 36.

[7] Cf. II Chronicles 7:24, Psalm 103:3, 147:3, Isaiah 19:22; 38:17,57:18. William L. Lane, The Gospel of Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974), 92. Even in the New Testament you find such thoughts.  James 5:14-16 appears to be a link between sin and sickness.

[8]See Hare, 36; and Morna D. Hooker, The Gospel According to Saint Mark (1991, Hendrickson Publishing, 1997), 85-86.

[9] For a brief definition of sociopath and psychopath and anti-social personality disorder see https://www.verywellhealth.com/sociopath-vs-psychopath-characteristics-and-differences-5193369

[10] Blasphemy was punished by stoning. See Leviticus 24:13-16.

[11] Russell Moore, Losing Our Religion: An Altar Call for Evangelical America (Sentinel: Penguin Random House, 2023), 81. 

Learning more about the Okefenokee

Photo of book, "Suwannee River"

Cecile Hulse Matschat, Suwannee River: Strange Green Land, A Descriptive Joureny through the Enchanted Okefenokee (1938, 1966, Athens, GA: University Press, 1980), 296 pages including a bibliography, glossary, bird and flora list, an index. Black and white drawings illustrate each chapter.

I picked this book up at a used bookstore several years ago. It was the perfect book to pack along on my recent ramblings in and around the Okefenokee. Originally published in the late 1930s as a part of a “River in America” series, the University of Georgia Press republished it

I have read many books about rivers. I enjoy an author taking me down a steam, telling me about the river, its history, along with the flora and fauna and wildlife around its water. This book does that in a fresh and unique manner. The author, an “outlander” from New York. She, heads into the Okefenokee Swamp looking for the headwaters of the Suwanee River in the 1930s. Drawing on her interest and knowledge of plants, she becomes known as the “Plant Woman,” and gains the confidence of the people who live in the swamp. She then writes about the swamp and river through the eyes of the native residents of the swamp. Not only will the reader learn about the region’s natural history but also gains an appreciation of the stories of the swamp. These stories are told in the swamper’s own dialect. 

The largest part of this book involves the Plant Woman’s stay with those living in the swamp. Here, we also learn the folk heritage of the swamp. Instead of a scientific understanding of the region, we learn of how the beavers and the native people had developed a truce, but when a new chief rose, he decided to make war on the beavers. In retaliation, the beavers flooded the land and abandoned it forever (there are no beavers in the swamp. We learn of tall tales of the ingenuity of who lived in the swamp. One “swamper” wedded bees and lightening bugs, doubling his production of honey because the insects could now work 24 hours a day. 

Matschat asks to see a still. They blindfolded her and take her by boat to a remote landing. There, she sees a still in operation and learns about moonshine. She introduces us to the “snake woman” who has a pet kingsnake. Some of boys catch a large rattlesnake with 21 rattlers They set up a fight with the kingsnake. Everyone knew the kingsnake would win, but the betting was on how long the rattlesnake could last against its arch enemy. She’s present as they boil off cane squeezings into syrup and learns about “old Christmas.” She tells of people’s encounter with the wilds. This included wild hogs, bears, and sandhill cranes. We also learn how they cared for each other. We are provided with recipes for delights like sweet potato biscuits along with the words to songs sung to pass time.  Her time in the swamp ends with a wedding. 

After her time in the swamp, she takes boat down the Suwannee River. Here, she experiences a variety of orchids and meets those who live by the river. She spends some time on old cotton plantations, with African Americans left behind after the Civil War. There, they eke out a living from farming, hunting, and fishing. Some may find this section difficult as Matschat tells of older members speaking fondly of slave days. This doesn’t ring politically correct today, but she found the former slaves still living in their cabins as the old mansions of the masters were rotting away and considered haunted. 

One of the stories an old man tells the children is about the rabbit. Supposedly, the rabbit used to have a beautiful long tail. Noah’s son, Ham, in the ark, spent his time during the rain playing the banjo. When his strings broke, Noah suggested he take the tail of the rabbits to create new strings. He did, which is why rabbits now have bobbed tails.

When she gets to the mouth of the Suwannee, she takes a boat down to Cedar Key. There, she meets a more international community of Cuban and Portuguese fishermen and hears more tales of pirates and hurricanes. She leaves her journey behind, taking an airplane from Cedar Key back north. For all her journey, you’d thought she was in the 19th or 18th centuries. Only here at the end we’re reminded that her experiences were in the 1930s.  I found this a delightful book and highly recommend it if you can find a copy.  

If one wants to learn more about the actual history of the Okefenokee, I suggest reading Trembling Earth. I first reviewed it in 2015 and have republished my review below. It’s academic and approaches the swamp’s folklore from a more objective perspective. She of how it was a refugee for runaway slaves, native Americans, deserters during the Civil War, and outlaws. She also tells of human efforts to drain the swamp, which became a folly.

Opening pages of book
A look inside at the opening page of the book
Photo of book, Trembling Earth

Megan Kate Nelson, Trembling Earth: A Cultural History of the Okefenokee Swamp (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2005), 262 pages including notes, index, bibliography, and a few photos.  

The Okefenokee Swamp is huge bog located mostly in South Georgia, just above the Florida border. Today, much of it is a National Wildlife Refuge. Prior to this status, the swamp existed as a barrier. Nelson calls it an “edge space.” The name, “Okefenokee,” comes out of a Native American term meaning “trembling earth.” This name describes the floating peat islands inside the swamp. Since there is only a little “solid” high ground inside the swamp, few made their home there.  

Prior to European immigration, there were a few native communities existing along the edges of the swamp. The interior was only probed for hunting. This changed over time as the Spanish began to populate Florida and the British began to move into Georgia. The swamp and the native populations served as a buffer between British and later Americans in the north and the Spanish in the South. 

Native communities began to move into the swamp during the Seminole wars of the early 19th Century, using it geographical barrier to their advantage. Another group to find the interior of the swamp beneficial were runaway slaves. At first, Georgia didn’t allow slavery. However, Africans had some immunity to the diseases that affected Europeans. That, along with the need for new areas to expand rice plantations , a push was made to extend slavery. Being close to Spanish Florida, some slaves would hide out in the swamp before making their ways south. Interestingly, the last group to find refuge in the swamp were poor white men. At first, they avoided conscription in the Confederate army during the Civil War by hiding in the forbidding swamp. Later, “crackers” who lived under the radar in the swamp, living off the bounty of the land. 

After the Civil War, serious attempts were made to “conquer” the swamp. The first was a failed attempt to drain the swamp through the St. Mary’s River to the Atlantic Ocean. It was with hopes that the rich ground could be utilized for farming. This attempt failed to understand the geography for most of the swamp drains through the Suwanee River into the Gulf of Mexico. 

After the bankruptcy of the dredging company, the swamp fell into the hands of northern timber companies who built “mud lines” (temporary railway spurs) which allowed them to harvest much of the cypress and pine within the swamp.  During this time, another group began to make the swamp their home. These “crackers” or “swampers,” both worked for and often resisted the various dredging and timber companies who attempted to change their environment. As the timber was being harvested, the interest in birdlife in the swamp increased as various surveys were made of the birds and waterfowl within the swamp were taken. This lead to the creation of a government protected wildlife refugee in the 1930s.  

Using a historicity which she labels “ecolocalism,” Nelson tells the history of the swamp through the stories of competing groups who relate to the landscape in different ways. These groups include Native Americans, slaves, colonists, developers, swampers, scientists, naturalists and tourists. This book is a distillation of the author’s dissertation. Although edited into its present form, it still maintains an academic distance from her subject. Only in an opening essay does she acknowledge having been into the swamp. This lack of a personal connect makes the book seem a little aloft. She does draw upon many of the group’s stories which makes the book very readable.  

twilight in the Okefenokee
Winter twilight in the swamp (photo taken in January 2017)

Jesus Trades Places with Us

Title slide showing photo of cross on Iona, Scotland

Jeff Garrison
Mayberry and Bluemont Presbyterian Churches
February 11, 2024
Mark 1:40-45 (Leviticus 13:45-46)

Sermon recorded at Bluemont on Friday, February 9, 2024

At the beginning of worship: 

Some of you may have read Charles Dicken’s classic novel, A Tale of Two Cities. It’s been decades since I read it, and I don’t remember much of the book. Of course, I remember that memorable opening line, but even people who haven’t read it knows “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” I’m pretty sure that’s been a Jeopardy question. 

The only other part I remember is the ending. Charles Darnay has been condemned to death on the guillotine during the “Reign of Terror” in the French Revolution. While waiting for the day, Sidney Carton, a man who both looked like Darnay and who loved the same woman, visits. He comes with another friend and a plan. They drug Darnay and in his stupor, Carton exchanges clothes with him. Carton assumes the identity of the condemned, as the other man leads the condemned to freedom. Waiting for his turn at the knife, Carton comforts a young seamstress who faces the same fate, while contemplating the life he loved and would lose with the drop of the blade. 


What a sacrifice, to give your life for the life of your rival. As the scriptures say, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”[1] But what about when it’s not your friend? Carton gives his life for his rival with a woman he loved. And would you give your life for someone you don’t know?

Today, we’re looking at the closing story in the first chapter of Mark’s gospel. Jesus trades places with a leper. In a way, with the placement of this story early in the book, Mark foreshadows Jesus’ goal. As Jesus says in the tenth chapter: “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many.”[2] This is what atonement is all about. Jesus takes our place. He pays the price for our ransom. 

Before reading the Scripture: 

It’s taken us five Sundays to work through the first chapter of Mark’s gospel… From the prologue which announced Jesus’ purpose of proclaiming the kingdom of God coming near, Mark stacks on top of each other stories of Jesus’ power. He is no ordinary human. His power extends over evil and over illness. 

Last week, we heard about Jesus leaving Capernaum,. So far, he focused his ministry there. Now he heads out to preach in the synagogues of the surrounding towns. We’re given one example of this ministry as he encounters a man with leprosy or some kind of skin disease. This was a feared illness. The Old Testament prescribed strict guidelines for how to handle the illness. For the sake of the community’s health, the one with leprosy must live outside the city and keep away from people. 

In the middle of the book of Leviticus, there’s a long section dealing with leprosy. I’ll spare you all the details, but let me read these two verses which provides an idea of what those living with the disease endured:

The person who has the defiling disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head be disheveled, and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean.’ He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean. He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.[3]

It’s often pointed out that the leprosy of scripture is different from the horrible diseases we know today by that name. It included a host of skin diseases which create open sores on the body of the victim.[4]  

Because Greek had another name for the disease we know as leprosy, the updated edition of the New Revised Standard Version identifies the illness only as a skin disease.[5] Such people were seen as contagious, and therefore for the good of the community, they were kept away from people. As one commentator noted, it wasn’t just bad enough to suffer with the disease, the person also received a sentence, a banishment from society.[6]

Now let’s look at this encounter between Jesus and a man with leprosy or a skin disease.

Read Mark 1:40-45

This passage marks a turning point in Jesus’ ministry. He has headed into the other town of Galilee to preach in the synagogues, but after encountering and healing this man with a skin disease, his popularity soars so high he can no longer go into the towns. His ministry is now limited to the countryside. Still, the crowds flock to see Jesus. 

In a way, if you were a strict Old Testament law constitutionalist, our passage shows two violations. The first comes from the man who approaches Jesus. He was to stay isolated. With unkempt hair and ratty clothes, he was forced to announce his presence as “unclean,” to anyone who may approach him. But the man has faith and feels this is his one chance to be clean. So, he ignores the law and finds deliverance from his sentence which forced him to live as the walking dead. 

The other violator to this strict law was Jesus. If you were without the disease, you were to stay away from those infected. For most people, this was a no-brainer. Who would want the disease. But Jesus reaches out his hand to the man. The illness doesn’t scare Jesus away. 

It’s more important for us to care for others than to be a strict legalist. I’ve been studying to take the test to renew my Amateur Radio license, which expired around the time I started college. One of the FCC rules that surprised me has to do with times of emergency. If life is threatened, you can break rules. If you hear a ships distress call, you can go to a frequency you are not licensed to use, to attempt to respond and get them help. 

There are also good Samaritan laws in many states. We can’t practice as a physician if we don’t have a degree or license. However, if there is no physician on the scene, we can attempt to provide aid when its either that or letting the person die. The law’s purpose is to protect the community and life. Jesus, knowing his powers, willingly intervenes even if it means going against the law. We’ll see more examples of this in Mark’s gospel.[7] Grace and love always triumphs the law. 

I recall the first person I knew with AIDS, back in the 1980s. If you remember, when the disease first appeared, people were scared to be around those diagnosed with it. This woman’s husband, a hemophilic, had contracted the disease through a blood transfusion. He died and she came down with AIDS. Her sister took her into her home so she would have a place to live out her remaining months. But there were people afraid of being around her. Thankfully, those in her sister’s church, which I was pastoring at the time, stepped in and made her feel welcomed.

I recall stories of those suffering from the illness who found hope and solace in those willing to give them a hug or to hold their hand as they were dying. As followers of Jesus, we are to show compassion and grace, even when it requires us to take risks. 

The man in our story today approaches Jesus reverently, kneeling before him. He has the beginning of faith. “If you are willing,” he says, “you can make me clean.” He knows of Jesus’ power. Think of how he felt when Jesus, without saying a word, reaches out his hand to touch the man. Jesus touched the untouchable. For Jesus, the law of love reign supreme, topping even the law of Moses. It’s only after Jesus touches the man, does he speak. Jesus’ word has power. The man experiences healing. 

Only then does Jesus follow protocol. He sends the man to the priests to be examined and proclaimed clean. Such requirements were laid out in chapters 13 and 14 of Leviticus. And he tells the man to keep it a secret about his healing. We’re not told whether the man makes it to a priest, but we learn that he could not keep quiet about his healing. I

It was as if the man received a pardon when facing a death sentence. He can’t help but to brag on Jesus, on what he had done for him. He becomes an evangelist, sharing the good news that he experienced. 

Our passage ends with a statement that Jesus can no longer go into towns because his fame has grown so much that he’s overwhelmed by people. So instead of going to the people, now the people come to Jesus. 

And while the man who had the skin disease is free to go into town, Jesus is stuck on the outskirts. As I mentioned earlier, this is an example of atonement, of Jesus trading places with us. The leper is freed, Jesus is restrained. Mark foreshadows what happens on the cross. Jesus willingly takes our place, accepts our punishment, so that we, like the man in today’s story, experience freedom. 

While I don’t suggest we ignore Jesus’ commands, I understand the man’s inability to keep quiet after his healing. After all, he’s now freed to live and has much for which to be thankful. And, for his blessings, he gives the credit to where it’s due. He doesn’t claim the grace he experienced to his own abilities or hard work. He gives credit to Jesus. May we be as thankful. Amen. 


[1] John 15:13. 

[2] Mark 10:45. 

[3] Leviticus 13:45-46.

[4] See William L. Lane, The Gospel of Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974), 84-85; Morna D. Hooker, The Gospel According to Saint Mark (1991, Hendrickson Publishers, 1997), 78-79; Douglas R. A. Hare, Westminster Bible Companion: Mark, (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1996), 33-34. 

[5] The original NRSV, which I will be reading, uses “ a leper.” The updated edition of the NRSV says, “A man with a skin disease.” 

[6] James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 68.

[7] In the 2nd chapter, Mark writes about Jesus breaking the Sabbath laws. See Mark 2:23-28. 

A stop at the Congaree

Title slide "A Stop at the Congaree" with photo of a kayak in the swamp
Cedar Creek

As I hadn’t planned on returning home until Monday, I decided to add another stop on my return. I have wanted to visit Congaree National Park in central South Carolina. The park is one of the nation’s newest, established in 2003. It’s also one of the least visited parks in the nation. The park consists of river bottom land along the Congaree River, which tends to flood.  A few weeks before I arrived, 80% of the park was underwater. While I was there, the water within the park was once again rising. 

Cedar Creek flows through the middle of the park, paralleling the Congaree River, which forms the park’s southern boundary. To the north, the land rises above the lowland, creating an area ideal for longleaf pine forest. Sadly, there are few longleaf, but I’ll get to that later.  

Leaving Folkston, Georgia, I determined to stay off the freeways. I followed US 301, through small towns in South Georgia, Nahauta and Jessup. This was familiar territory from my time living in South Georgia. The GPS on my phone drove me nuts as it kept trying to lure me back on I-95. The GPS even said it was the safe route as the National Weather Station reported flooding on other routes. I found myself rerouted to the interstate.  This I discovered this when I arrived in Hinesville. Turning the GPS off, I take a road that cuts through Fort Stewart, and picked up 301 again.  I drive through Claxton (the world’s fruitcake capital) and Statesboro and Sylvania, where I stopp for a late lunch in a Chinese restaurant.  While the rivers are high, they are nowhere near cresting over the bridges.

Crossing the Savannah River on an old bridge, I enter South Carolina. As I drive on, I listen to Edward Chancellor’s Devil Take the Hindmost, which is a history of economic speculation.  Traveling through towns like Allendale and Bamberg, who appear to have long passed their better days gives me time to ponder what happens when an economic bubble bursts.  I passed through Orangeburg, probably the largest city that I passed (Statesville might be larger, but I only skirted around it). 

When I crossed Intestate 26, running from Charleston to Columbia, I stop and grabb a burger for later, knowing that I didn’t feel much like cooking. 

Giant Loblolly Pine

I arrive at the Congaree National Park’s Longleaf Campsite at dusk. It’s a walk-in campsite, so I lung my waterproof bag containing my hammock, tarp, and sleeping bag a few hundred feet to my assigned site. I quickly set up my hammock, for there was heavy lightning to the north. But the storm took another path and by the time I was set to withstand the storm, the lightning has disappeared. 

I then set out to explore. The waning moon, only a few days after full, rose and offered plenty of defused light. I hiked the longleaf trail to the Visitor’s Center. Of course, everything was closed, but in the darkness, I came to understand that the name of my campsite and the trail to the Center was aspirational. I was camping and hiking under loblolly pines, the type of pines loved by paper companies. When the old growth longleaf were cut, they were replanted with loblollies, as they grow faster. The loblollies have shallower roots than the longleaf, who grow deep roots before they grow tall.  The only longleaf I’d seen in the dark were a few youthful plants near the outhouses. 

Returning to my campsite, it begins to drizzle. I retreat into my hammock and read a few chapters of Cecile Hulse Matschat’s The Suwanee: Strange Green Land, before falling asleep to the sound of rain. It rained off and on throughout the night. 

Coffee pot on my stove
(inside the fire pit because of the wind)

While I had enough water for the evening, I have to go find water for breakfast. I hike back to the Visitor’s Center and fill a couple of liter bottles. Coming back, I perk a pot of coffee and make some oatmeal. The wind slips through the pines as I enjoy breakfast. In honor of the Christian Sabbath, read several Psalms and commentaries in Robert Alter’s The Book of Psalms. The sun burns the fog and clouds away. Along with the wind, my tarp dries by the time I finish breakfast. I pack up a head back to the Visitors Center where most of the trails originate. 

Boardwalk with evidence of recent flooding

The park has an amazing 2 ½ mile long boardwalk that takes you deep into the cypress lowlands. At places, the water is just below the walking path. I can see where, a few weeks ago, the water crested over the boardwalk.  When I get to the trail to the river, I take it, but only make it about a half mile before the path is blocked by running water. I return to the boardwalk.

Along the way, I pass one of the largest loblolly pines I’ve seen. It’s huge. This is the natural location for such trees, as they tolerate water around their base better than the longleaf pines. These trees are obviously old growth and this one next to the boardwalk is thought to be the largest pine in South Carolina. 

Water moving into bottomland. The rotten trees create bird habitat

These bottomland swamps, populated with cypress, loblollies, holly, and tupelo (gum) trees remind me of the swamps I started exploring as a teenager in Eastern North Carolina. While there is some similarity to the Okefenokee, it’s also different, especially with the amount of tupelo. After hiking about 4 miles, I make it back to my car and drive to the boat landing on Cedar Creek. I must get one more paddle in before driving home.  

I eat lunch at the boat launch on the edge of the National Park boundary, a few miles from the Visitor’s Center. From the number of vehicles, it seems there are many others on the water, and a few are hiking, even though much of the trails are underwater. As I’m putting in, I speak with a guide who is bringing back a couple of patrons from a paddle. The water is high. He informs me that you can only make it about a mile upstream and three miles downstream. I head out, paddling upstream against the hard current for about 30 minutes, till I arrive at a place I can go no further without pulling my boat over a log. Then, I turn around and make it back to the takeout in only 10 minutes. 

I continue going downstream for a few miles, passing many boaters struggling to fight the current as they paddle back to the takeout. This water is naturally blackish, but with the silt from the rains, it’s milk chocolate brown. As I turn around and paddle upstream, I pass many of those in small kayaks still fighting to get back to their takeout. My boat, 18 feet long, is easier to paddle against the current. I also read the water better, and am able to stay out of the fastest current. 

One of the local paddlers from Columbia is impressed with my sea kayak and asks me all kinds of questions as he helps me load it on the car. He’d come down from the state capitol for a day trip and had never paddled this area. As we talk, we realize that we have probably raced against each other. He used to crew on a friend’s boat out of the Savannah Yacht Club and raced in many of the regattas I have also raced in. 

A little after 3, I’m loaded up and heading north, driving the backroads of South Carolina through the Sandhill region of the state. In an old tree in a pond next to the road, I spot a bald eagle, I slow down, but there is no place to pull over. The car behind me honks his horn and gives me the “Hawaiian good luck sign” as he passes. The bird takes off. I have no idea what kind of hurry he was in, but he missed seeing a beautiful bird. As I enter North Carolina, the light fades. I cut over and take Interstate 77 toward home. Stopping only for dinner and gas, I arrive home a little after nine. 

Selfie taken on Cedar Creek

Saved for a purpose

Title slide showing a picture of the Okefenokee

Jeff Garrison
Mayberry & Bluemont Churches
February 4, 2024
Mark 1:29-39

Often people speak of seeking Jesus as if he can be found. Instead of us finding Jesus, he finds us. Some think if others can find Jesus, he’ll solve their problems or take up their cause. But that’s putting the cart in front of the horse. While it is worthy to seek Jesus, scripture tells us to seek first the Kingdom of God.[1]There might be a difference. 

We’re not to go out to find Jesus just for him to take care of our issues. God’s kingdom is about something far more important than individual needs. Furthermore, it’s not enough just to seek Jesus. When we encounter Jesus, we must be ready and willing to follow him.[2] We’ll see this in our text this morning from Mark’s gospel. The disciples seek Jesus so that he can tend to the crowds, but Jesus has a different plan. 

In my email “musings” that I sent out yesterday, I linked to an article by James Bratt, a professor emeritus from Calvin College, who describes our purpose in God’s plan in this manner: 

God is not just saving individuals from hellfire but is in the business of redeeming the whole world, the entire cosmos, from the blight of the fall. The “saved” at the end of time will populate the new earth, but in the meantime, they are to witness to that coming kingdom in every domain of human life, here and now. We are means, not the end; agents, not the goal.[3]

Before reading the scripture:

As I have tried to express in my first sermons from Mark, the gospel is fast paced. One of Mark’s favorite Greek words is euthys. Mark uses this word to express immediacy. It’s translated as “soon,” “just then,” “immediately,” “directly” or if you prefer the older English King James Version, “forthwith.” We find this word eleven times in the first chapter of Mark. It’s used a total of forty times in the entire gospel.[4] We see this in our reading this morning. 

Immediately after casting out the demon or unclean spirit, Jesus leaves the synagogue and heads to the home of Peter (referred to here as Simon). Peter and his brother Andrew’s home appears to have been right behind the synagogue. Archeologists are pretty sure where this home was located. Graffiti scratched in the wall in the late first or early second century, identify the site. It became an early church, venerated as having belonged to Peter.[5] There Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law. 

Our reading today might be called “A Night in the Life of Jesus.” For after Peter’s mother-in-law was healed, the sun sets. The sabbath restrictions on travel is over. Now, people can freely move about, and they rush to be healed by Jesus. It’s chaotic. Before the sun rises and morning comes, after getting a little sleep, Jesus slips away for quiet time with his father. And the disciples head out in the dark in search of him. 

Read Mark 1:29-39

We can’t control Jesus. He doesn’t serve as our personal physician or miracle maker. Instead, Jesus came to inaugurate God’s kingdom and to show his followers what the kingdom should look like. As we see in this passage, Jesus resists becoming a freak show or circus act. As the crowd builds, instead of basking in their praise, he slips away. Even Jesus needs quiet time. 

Furthermore, Jesus’ message can’t be confined to a particular locale. While a personal relationship with Jesus is necessary, we must never forget that Jesus’ role in God’s plan of salvation is not just for us, as individuals. Jesus came and gave his life for the life of the world.[6]

In this text we also see Jesus’ human needs. His life consists of work, worship, and rest. He heals, then he gets away to rest and to reconnect with the Father. All aspects of his life are important. The same goes for us. We’re to work hard, but we’re not to forget to connect with God through prayer and worship. And it’s important for us to take time for ourselves. 

Now let’s look at the text. Mark uses that favorite word I told you about which emphasizes immediacy. As soon as they leave the synagogue, they enter the Peter’s house. Mark likes to create fast action, but here it might not just be rhetorical. As I mentioned, Peter’s home was next to the synagogue, so it really was immediate. Jesus walks out of one door and into the next door, as Peter and Andrew’s home shared a wall with the synagogue.[7]

As they enter the home, they learn of Peter’s mother-in-law’s illness. She has a fever, which in those days before aspirin and iburpofen, was serious. Unlike other faith healers of the day, or even today, we’re not told of any prayer or incantation. He doesn’t make an ointment. Instead, he demonstrates his power by just taking her hand and raising her up. Instantly healed and starts serving them. 

In a way, it doesn’t seem right. She is healed and immediately goes back to work. Again, as I pointed out in the quote from Professor Bratt, Jesus doesn’t just save us for our own well-being. There is a purpose in our lives. 

Sadly, but not unsurprisingly, some have used this passage to demonstrate how women are supposed to serve men. But that’s a misinterpretation. The word used for serving is the same word used to describe the angels tending to Jesus in the wilderness. It’s also the root of the word Jesus applies to himself. He’s the one who came to serve.[8] As we follow Jesus, we are to serve one another. 

Let me reiterate. This text in no way implies that just women are to serve. Instead, it means that those who follow Jesus (men and women, rich and poor, young, and old) are to be in service to others.[9] God’s kingdom turns the ways of the world upside down. We’re not to look to get all we can for ourselves. All are to be in service to others. A question to ask ourselves, “how are we at serving?”

Of course, the word of this instant healing spreads fast. After sunset, when the Sabbath is over and people can mill around, everyone gathers at Peter and Andrew’s door. 

Me with a girl from Honduras in front of a church, 2005

I remember the first medical mission trip I attended in Jesus’ de Ortoro, Honduras.[10] We announced in the community and surrounding villages there would be American doctors and medical personnel available on a particular day. The clinics opened at 8 AM, and by 7 AM, there was a line of folks stretching down the dusty street. Vendors popped up to sell food as many had to wait for hours. Desperate people grasp at any hope, and so all who have needs come out just as it was in Jesus’ day. Jesus heals many. He casts out many demons. 

After Jesus’ visit to the Capernaum synagogue, the demons know who he is and fears him.[11] Jesus establishes his kingdom by defeating the evil powers in the world. But he doesn’t let them identify himself. He wants his disciples and followers to come to their own understanding to his identity and purpose. 

Now all this happened in the evening. Mark doesn’t tell us what time the clinic closed, but at some point, everyone heads home. Jesus, exhausted, gets a bit of sleep. Then he’s up early, setting off to find a place where he could be alone in prayer. 

Remember, while it’s morning, it’s still dark. And in the darkness, Simon and the other disciples go in search for Jesus. They find him and, in some ways, boldly chastise him. Essentially, they imply, “why are you hiding, everyone is looking for you.” But Jesus can’t be controlled. Instead of returning to Capernaum, he has them pack up and head to other towns in Galilee, proclaiming this same message. Jesus’ fame grows. 

We learn from this passage, as did the disciples, that we should follow Jesus and not try to control him. While we might seek Jesus, we’re not to seek him for our own selfish purposes. If Jesus saves us, he expects us to be of service to others, as Simon’s mother-in-law demonstrates. 

The disciples want Jesus to go tend to their neighbors and kinfolk. But Jesus has bigger plans. And he calls us to follow him, not just to save our souls, but to for us to participate in God’s grand plan to restore the world, not by might, but by love, not by power, but with grace. Amen. 


[1] Matthew 6:33. 

[2] Mark later tells the story of one who sought Jesus but wasn’t willing to follow him. See Mark 10:17-22. 

[3] https://blog.reformedjournal.com/2024/02/02/dutch-reformed-vs-evangelical-i-salvation/#comment-90066

[4] James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001), 58-59. The use of the word in other translations came from my own research as I looked at the KJV, NIV, Living Bible, RSV, NRSV, and Message.

[5] Edwards, 59. 

[6] We shouldn’t forget that John 3:16 says “For God so loved the world…” not “God so loved me.” God loves us and everyone.

[7] Douglas R. A. Hare, Westminster Bible Companion: Mark (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox 1996), 29. 

[8] See Mark 10:45. 

[9] Edwards, 60. 

[10] I wrote about one of my trips to Honduras in an article for the Presbyterian Outlook in 2007 and reprinted it last year in my blog. See https://fromarockyhillside.com/2023/02/02/a-return-visit-to-honduras/

[11] Mark 1:21-28. See https://fromarockyhillside.com/2024/01/21/jesus-in-the-synagogue/

Chesser Prairie in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. Photo taken last week.

My recent Okefenokee Adventure

Title Slide, kayak following a canoe

I’ve been away (taking my last week of vacation from 2023), and spending time paddling in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. It’s a place I’ve been many times. In May 2019, I did a five day trip into the Okefenokee which you can read about by clicking here.  From my count, I have spent 15 nights in the swamp and paddled in it 20 days. After my recent trip, I have paddled all the canoe trails in the wilderness area of the swamp. 


A selfie of me on the water

Drops of water hit just above my head as I wake from a dream of helping a college student host a seminar for families who have hosted exchange students. I have no idea of the genesis of that dream, but before I attempt to process it, I need to relieve my bladder. It’s 5:15 AM. I crawl out from my hammock, realizing the rain of the last couple of hours have stopped. Water still drops from the branches of trees. The full moon has moved to the west and, with the morning fog, brings an eerie light into the swamp. The moon also reflects off the dark water of the canal. The insects, so active earlier in the evening, have quieted. In the distance, I heard a large splash followed by a squeal. Did a gator find dinner? 

Bill and I are camping at Canal Run, in the heart of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. The water in the swamp is as high as I’ve seen and flows hard toward the Suwanee. Yesterday’s paddle of a little more than 7 miles was tough, especially for Bill who paddled one of his Blue Hole Canoes. 

Dock at Billy’s Island

We’d left Stephen Foster State Park on the Southwest corner of the swamp yesterday morning around 10 AM, just as the fog rose. The current as we paddled the length of Billy’s Lake wasn’t too bad and it took just an hour to make it to Billy’s Island. We stopped to explore then took an early lunch. The island has long been inhabited by humans. The Lee family lived there for 50 years in a self-sufficient homestead. They raised crops, chickens, hogs, and cows, but also lived off the wild bounty of the swamp. Sadly, having never obtained title for their land, the logging company forced them out in the 1920s. Next came a logging camp which existed for a few years while they logged the swamp of its cypress and pine. Today, the island remains uninhabited, with only a few pieces of rusting logging equipment and a cemetery remaining. 

heading into the narrows

A short way up from Billy’s Island, the channel narrowed as we entered the wilderness area. From here on, motors are not allowed. We entered a quiet world. We pushed our way eastward.  At times, I had to make multiple turns in my 18-foot kayak to navigate the winding narrow channel. The real difficulty was in the first couple of miles, then the old canal straightened out, allowing us to make better time. Land speculators dug the canal in the late 19th Century with the hopes of draining the swamp and opening it up to farming. The plan was to drain the water through the St. Mary’s River to the Atlantic, which was an engineering mistake as most of the swamp drains through the Suwanee River. 

As the canal straightened and widen, I paddled ahead of Bill. Once I found the campsite, I backtracked and gave him the good news. Arriving at the campsite was a milestone for me, for it meant I have paddled all the canoe trails within the swamp. It took us four hours to make the five-mile upstream paddle from Billy’s Island. Along the way, we saw many alligators, a few turtles, a couple of cardinals, plenty of ducks, and one great blue heron. 

Bill (dress coordinated with his Blue Hole)

We set up camp. Afterwards, Bill prepared the hot dogs he brought for dinner. I took his canoe and paddled upstream a bit more, collecting pieces of wood for a fire. Most of the campsites in the swamp are on platforms and fires prohibited. However, Canal Run is along the canal bank, so there is land and a campfire ring.  We enjoyed a campfire and talked of folks we knew when we both lived in Hickory, NC back in the mid-80s.  As we talked, the moon rose, and we could see it’s light through the trees and reflected across the waters. 

We both turned in before nine, but I laid awake in my hammock for a while reading a chapter in Cecile Hulse Matschat’s Suwannee River. She had traveled in the swamp and then down the Suwannee in the early 1930s, to study orchids and came out with a handful of tales. She told about Snake Woman and her pet king snake. Some of the boys of the island caught an old rattlesnake with 21 rattlers. They let the two snakes fight it out. Everyone knew the king snake would kill the rattlesnake, but the wagers were on how long the old rattler could survive. After a chapter, I fell asleep to the night sounds of the swamp. I only woke up one before 5:15. Around 2:15, to the sound of raindrops. Checking to make sure things stayed dry, I fell back asleep to the sound of raindrops. 

Canal Run campsite (the fire pit was to the left)

At 7 AM, I crawl out of my hammock and start heating water for oatmeal while perking coffee. We eat and takeour time packing up, discussing what to do next. Our plan had planned to continue down the Suwannee River, but it is so high, we know we would have a hard time finding camping spots. We discuss going down to Florida, where there are campsites up on bluffs, but when I suggest how much different the other side of the Okefenokee was than the west side, Bill decides he would like to see it. 

 It was just after 9 when we pushed off to make our way back to Stephen Foster State Park.  The sky clears. With a warm sun, we see more alligators than the day before. We again stop at Billy’s Island for lunch. As I paddle into the boat ramp at the park, I noticed a gator with a square box on her head. Then I saw the tag on her tail with the number 209. As we pulled ashore, I ask a ranger alligator 209. “That’s Sophia,” he said. “She’s part of a study. Go to the University of Georgia’s website to learn more.”

Sophia

Having packed up, we drive across the bottom of the swamp to St. Mary’s, where we picked up some ice and beer before heading north. We stop at Okefenokee Pastimes, a public campground just outside the Suwanee Canal Recreation Area.  Interestingly, as I’ll later learn, the grandmother of the woman who runs the campground, was born on Billy’s Island. 

Okefenokee Pastimes
Okefenokee Pastimes

After setting up camp, we plan to head into Folkston for dinner, but discover the campground has their own restaurant (serving dinner and on weekends, breakfast). We eat there both evenings and had breakfast together before we left on Saturday.  I highly recommend their cheeseburger and their Philly cheese steak sandwiches. The place has a party atmosphere that includes some locals and a lot of folks from Jacksonville. We hear a lot of stories from colorful individuals including the former drummer of 38 Special. He travels around in a sleek airstream camper, and this is one of his regular campgrounds. One of the patrons even offered us a shot of “swine,” a local home brew mixture of moonshine and sweet wine. I tried it. It was okay, but not good enough to ask for a second round. 

After sunset photo, Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, 2015
Cedar Hammock Sunset, 2015

On Saturday, Bill and I set out to explore the east side of the swamp. I leave my kayak on the car and take a position in the stern of his Blue Hole canoe. This side of the swamp is more open with large swampy areas known as prairies. As the water is high, we could paddle most anywhere we wanted to go. We explored Chesser and Mizzell prairies and  stop at Cedar Hammock platform. I remember taking some incredible sunset photos from here in 2015. We see lots of large birds including sandhill cranes, egrets, and hawks. There are plenty of alligators and turtles. While few of the flowers are in bloom, we see lots of dried pitcher plants, which will come back to life later in the spring. We also hear the bellowing of bull gators, which seemed a little in the year. 

After paddling maybe 8 miles, we toured the Chesser homestead and hiked out to an observation tower over Chesser prairie. After dinner at Okefenokee Pastimes, we built a fire and sat around enjoying it. Bill plays guitar and we talk till bedtime. The next morning, after breakfast, Bill heads home and I head into Folkston to watch some trains, before my next adventure (which I’ll write about later). 

a long train of mostly tank cars running the “Folkston Funnel”