How does one sum up thousands of years of history in a few paragraphs? After sleeping on the reality of Delphi and the concept of people traveling great distances to make sacrifices and offerings to ask the Oracle the ONE question you can ask, and to walk away with a vague answer, we rolled out the next morning for more history.
First we made a quick, unplanned, side trip to Thermopyle, the historic site of the real battle of the Spartan army against the power of the Persian Empire led by Xerxes. Of all the movies made in or about Greek history, 300 is the only one the Greek people appreciate and feel that tells the story with authenticity (in other words, forget Alexander and Troy). We viewed the site, took a few pictures, then moved on to the city of Kalambaka, where after lunch, we visited Meteora.
Meterora is this incredible geological formation, where there have been (at one time) twenty four different monasteries; today, there are six still functioning, but the monks and nuns who live in them and find their calling in them, are dwindling.IMG_2974 We visited two of them, the Church of St Barbara, named for a woman who was beheaded by her own (Roman) father when he learned that she had converted to Christianity—it is an ancient Orthodox Church that is maintained by a tiny group of nuns.
We drove past the Monastery of the holy Trinity, which was used in the filming of the James Bond film “For Your Eyes Only”

Used in James Bond movie "For Your Eyes Only"

Used in James Bond movie “For Your Eyes Only”

(I have dim memory of it, and will have to check it out when back home), before stopping at the Monastery and Church of St Stephen—another Orthodox Church, this one maintained by monks. The Church itself is relatively new, having been rebuilt after bombings during World War Two.
Monday we drove a short way before getting on the Via Egnatia, the interstate highway that functionally follows the old Roman Via Egnatia, the road built through the Roman Empire. Rome either managed the road such that there were already established cities, or they created cities about every 45-60 kilometers, basically the distance a Roman Legion could travel in one day.
We stopped in Veria, which in the days of the Apostle Paul was called Berea (see Acts 17), and where there is a monument depicting Paul’s work in that city, with beautiful murals.mural of Paul preaching in Berea While there, our great guide Maria told us a long, rambling story about a Torah scroll dating to 200 BC, on which rabbis had kept historical notes about the community (there was a strong Jewish community in Berea.) In the marginal notes was information about Paul having come there and preaching. But the Torah was stolen by the Nazis in WWII, found in Auschwitz, then moved to Austria, then Hungary, and is now held by a private collector in Canada, who refuses access to it.
You can’t make this stuff up.
From there we made our way to Pella, the site of the birth of Alexander the Great, and visited a museum devoted to the ongoing archaeological excavations of this ancient city, which at one time was the capital of Macedonia, and was the spot from Which Alexander launched his campaign to expand the empire (which he did until his untimely death in Babylon at the ripe young age of 32!)bust of Alexander the Great
Thessaloniki, our final stop of the day, is a fun port city with lots of shopping and night life (none of which we have sampled), but sadly, completely overlooks the impact that the Apostle Paul had here so long ago (again, see Acts 17.)
Philippi tomorrow, where there are ruins of the old city, and sites surrounding Paul’s work there!

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Well, after much travel, no real adventures, but a lot of territory covered and time killed, we arrived in Greece!
We left Atlanta around 9:15 Thursday night, bound for Paris. An 8.5 hour flight with quite a bit of turbulence allowed a little bit (and I mean LITTLE) of sleep; the couple in the seats behind us singing “O Tannenbaum” (yes, I’m serious) did not help. But a bit of sleep, and we landed in Paris around 11:00 am. For the record, the Paris airport is not the easiest to navigate, but our hardy gang managed to get through alright, and find our departure gate, where we proceeded to kill the next six hours. Our attempt to buy a one-day pass to the Delta/Air France lounge was not successful, so it was shared space with the mass of humanity.
We boarded our next flight, and landed in Athens around 11:00 pm this time, and since we had passed into the EU in Paris, and had our passport stamped, all we had to do was collect luggage and meet our wonderful hostess Caterina. She and Niko, our driver, got us to the delightful Royal Olympic Hotel, right next to the Temple of Zeus, and we crashed after 1:00 am.
Fortunately we slept in, ate a late breakfast, and met Maria, our guide for the Greek leg of our trip, and headed out midmorning. A lunch stop, followed by another stop for some majestic views and pictures, and we moved on to our stop for the night, Delphi.
Delphi is known to Greeks as the “center of the universe,” because this is where the Greek god Apollo chose for his temple. Fascinating archaeological ruins are here, that for years (centuries?) were buried under landslides and had homes built on top of them until they were discovered and unearthed. Interestingly, here (as in other locations around the country), people would come to ask a question of the oracle, a woman kept in a trance and under the spell of “vapors” (since discovered to be underground streams heated by volcanic heat, now dormant), who would usually give a vague, ambiguous answer to your question. But people, desperate for direction, would travel to see the oracle, make lavish gifts, and produce a sacrifice, in the hopes of hearing direction.
Tomorrow we will visit the monasteries at Meteora, where (I hope) clearer answers to the questions of life are found!
IMG_2951

LIFE IS NOT ALWAYS LEVEL

October 8, 2014

Last week I finished another section on the Appalachian Trail, this time walking the section from Fontana Dam, NC, all the way through Great Smoky Mountains National Park to Davenport Gap (and beyond.) One of the things I have learned about the Trail is that it is not always level; sometimes the terrain has you walking a mostly level trail, but more often than not, you are walking downhill (to valleys, which are called “gaps”), and sometimes you are walking uphill (to mountaintops, which are often called “views.”

The Trail, while being well marked with white blazes spaced about every quarter mile or so apart, is still very much in wilderness, remote areas. What that translates into is few signs, which are not necessarily precise in terms of mileage.

One would think that walking uphill, with a 30-35 pound pack on your back, is hard, And it is. Breathing gets labored, your heart rate accelerates (you hear it in your ears!), your skin begins to leak, and it just gets difficult—especially when the terrain grows steep (as in the section called “Jacob’s Ladder” in North Carolina.)

And it stands to reason that if walking uphill is hard, then walking downhill is easy. Au contraire, mon chere. Last Thursday, after walking about ten miles, we hit a downhill section that was dropping like a rock in a bottle. After two miles of steep downhill, a solid hour of pounding, my ankles, calves, and quads were screaming for relief. It is as if with each step, you’re hitting the brakes, and trust me, the brake pads were begging for relief. By the grace of God, we hit a relatively flat section, and amazingly after about 100 yards, I was already feeling some recovery.

But even when the trail is level, it’s not always easy. While sometimes it is—as here:23 a Good Trail

It isn’t always easy. It may be level, but the surface is fraught with potholes, ankle-biters, and traps; like this boulder field I crossed last year: 28 Boulder field trail

But it takes effort, whether up or down or level, to reach some spectacular views. And reaching some of those high points on a clear day, when it seems you can truly see forever, is worth the effort. You forget about the pain, and are often stopped dead in your tracks, in slack-jawed, forget-myself wonder at the beauty of creation the Lord made. 33 Cheoah Bald view 2

So the next time you are feeling down and low, like you’ve stumbled your way to the bottom of life; and/or are slogging your way up through problems and people, remember that the views are at the top—not along the way—and once you get there, it’s well worth a break to soak it all in.

OK, so this is not an exhaustive list by any stretch of the imagination; but in light of the fact that I have been (blissfully) happily married to the former Lib Upchurch 31 years as of today, I thought a moment to enumerate a few lessons would be appropriate. For a brief second I thought about coming up with 31 lessons, but then figured it would tax my brain and bore people. So, in no particular order, here are the top five things that came to my mind today:

1. She polishes my rough edges. Let’s face reality; I had a great childhood and youth, a pretty good experience growing up and getting through college and grad school, even landed my first “grown up” job before we married. But good grief, Lib took this sow’s ear and has excelled in making a silk purse out of me. She has taught me the right fork to use, what tie to wear with what suit (and which one NOT to wear), not to leave the house wrinkled, and that at the end of the day, social etiquette really does matter. Social etiquette is simply a way of telling other people that they matter, that they are important. And for the record, No, she is not through polishing me. I still have (and continue to add!) plenty of rough edges!
2. I’m not worthy. I don’t think I was when I popped the question 31+ years ago (of course, then I thought I was!), and I don’t believe I am worthy of this amazing woman today. She is one of the hardest working, most devoted teachers (in the thankless world of public education) there is, and comes home to keep a house straight, make sure healthy dinners are planned, prepared, and served (and cleaned up!), and does it all with a smile on her face. Me, I’m a preacher; I only work one day a week, and that’s only in the morning! But Lib is unquestionably the consummate Southern Lady. Grace, charm, looks, a deep faith in Jesus, and a devotion to her husband and family that does not end.
3. We weren’t ready. We reflected on this some years ago, and I still believe it. We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into when we got engaged, and when we got married. We did have a solid foundation, in that both of us had parents who were married to one another. My parents were married 58 years before they died, and hers celebrated their 59th anniversary this year. We were both 24 when we married, were young, naive, idealistic, broke, but very much in love with one another. And somehow, by the grace of God, we made it work.
4. Marriage is an adventure. In 31 years we have lived in 4 cities in three different states. In another week, we will have lived in the home we live in now longer than any other home we have owned. We’ve made mistakes (the Pontiac Sunbird comes to mind), had amazingly few fights, disagreed on few things, most of which were simple, silly, and petty, have had seasons when we had to live on hot dogs and generic chips, but have raised two incredible daughters, pursued three advanced degrees between the two of us (four if we add Anne’s Master’s in there!), loved three faithful dogs for 14+ years each, taught each other more that I at least will talk about here, and started and ended every day with the assurance of our love for each other—even when we were mad at each other for whatever silly reason.
5. Marriage is the hardest—and best—job I’ll ever have. When you make the move from living by yourself—and sleeping by yourself—to sharing space with another person, there are adjustments to be made. Holidays, those most sacred and sacrosanct of institutions in family life, are celebrated differently. When you get irritated with the other person, if you are committed to them and the institution of marriage, you can’t run away. Maybe never living in the same town as any family was a good thing; it forced us to look each other in the eye, face our differences, and work them out. Making the move from “yours” and “mine” to “ours” is not a simple thing—there are no neat, easy, simple steps, and the path is fraught with landmines. Fortunately for us, none of them blew up on us, and we have found that when we had hard things to deal with, it just made celebrating the accomplishments that much better.

The joy of going home at the end of the day to someone who loves me, wants the best for me, believes in me, and will accept nothing but the best for me, has made the last 31 years absolutely the best years of my life.
I’m a VERY lucky man.

Lib & Chuck on the Springer Mtn summit

Lib & Chuck on the Springer Mtn summit

The Cross I Wear

July 30, 2014

A number of people have been asking me about the cross I have been wearing in worship and at weddings, and my response has been, “It’s a long story.” I finally decided to put the story and explanation here so folks can understand it, and what it means to me.
There are a couple of starting points to the cross. One is August 1, 1995, when I started work as the Pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Pascagoula, MS. I decided that I would wear a large cross over my robe (or suit, if I was not robed) whenever I was involved in worship. I bought one, and used it for a few years, before purchasing a larger one, and wearing it for the remainder of my ministry there.
When we moved back to Atlanta and I returned to the Peachtree staff, for whatever reason, I did not wear the cross. The more time passed, the less I thought about it, and it sat in a box in my office.
The other starting point is July 24, 1945. Yes, that’s the correct date; it is the date that my parents were married, six weeks after Dad returned from ten months as a prisoner of the Germans (after being shot in France). Mom and Dad were engaged when he went overseas, and after his liberation Mom kicked plans into action. Like with many couples, they received a good bit of silver as wedding presents. Among those were some silver candlesticks.
Then in February, 1983, Mom and Dad’s home was broken into. The thieves got candlesticks, flatware, and some of Mom’s jewelry. Most all of it was retrieved by the Police, but there were two candlesticks that were in the process of being beaten down and broken up for melting and sale when the thieves were apprehended. Mom never had them repaired, but kept them in a pacific cloth sack.
In the summer of 2003, Dad died suddenly and unexpectedly, and Mom followed him ten weeks later. “She didn’t die of a broken heart,” their Pastor said, “She died of a full heart.” In the sifting, sorting, and selecting of their property, I chose to take the mangled candlesticks; I thought that one day I would have them made into a cross to wear.
So some time after we returned to Atlanta and Peachtree, I took them to H.G. Robertson Fine Silver, and talked with them about my idea. They said that they could do it, but that more silver would be needed. I was encouraged to browse flea markets and estate sales, looking for odd pieces of flatware. Flea markets and estate sales and I don’t see one another much. I left the candlesticks with them, and returned every so often (like every couple of years?) to talk with them about it. The shop even moved, but they kept track of them! “Look into silver” remained on my weekend to-do list for many years.
Segue to Friday, May 2, 2014, and Bald Head Island, NC, where Lib and I had gone so I could officiate at the wedding ceremony of our good friends Glenn Harvin and Kelly Johnson. AT the wedding rehearsal, Glenn said to me, “When we get back to the house, Kelly and I have something to give you.”
We got back to “party central” after the rehearsal, and at some point, someone told me that Glenn wanted me in the house. Lib and I walked in, and Glenn was standing there with Kelly, grinning from ear to ear, holding a white gift sack. As we approached, Glenn’s sister Laura and her boyfriend Grey Campbell started to walk away. Glenn stopped them, saying, “You guys had a role in this.” He handed me the bag.
I took it, thanked him, and lifted the tissue paper from the opening. I looked in, and realized what was in it. I said, “Oh, my word.” I recognized the black box that the cross I’d worn in Mississippi was stored in, and next to it was a white HG Robertson box.
Lifting the white box out, I opened it, and there was the cross that I’d always thought about, that I had dreamed of having made. Glenn asked, “Will you wear that tomorrow for the wedding?”
I replied, “Not only tomorrow, but from here on out, every Sunday.” And so I have—on Sundays, at weddings, and memorial services, and any other service.
It seems that Glenn and Kelly were out to dinner with Laura and Grey one evening, and the wedding came up, and somehow the fact that I was going to officiate surfaced. Grey, who used to be a member at Peachtree, and we’ve known one another for many years, and also does some work at HG Robertson’s, apparently said. “Let me tell you about a project Chuck has at the shop.”
And Glenn—incredible guy, generous soul, great friend that he is—said, “I want to finish that for him.” And so he did.
Shortly before his wedding, I handed it to Glenn, and asked him to place the cross on me. That was the first time it was used, but it’s been used frequently since then. And I intend it to be used for many years, and on many occasions, to come.
And that is the cross that I wear on Sundays. It is a reminder of my parents, a testimony to redemptive grace following tragedy, and the presence of good friends with me. It’s a gift that spans close to 70 years, and is quite likely the greatest gift I have ever received.

The Cross made from my parent's candlesticks

The Cross made from my parent’s candlesticks

Rethinking Greatness

May 14, 2014

“The greatness of a man is seen in the way he treats people he does not need.”

 

I was walking down the hallway of the church with John Croyle, who has to be one of the greatest men I have had the privilege to meet and be in the presence of. John played defensive end at Alabama under the legendary coach Bear Bryant, was an All-American, but after a summer of working at a camp for youths in Mississippi, discovered what he was convinced was his purpose in life—helping the children that no one else wants.

Over the last 40+ years, John and his wife Tee, and now their children (you may recall their son Brody who has his own pretty good football career at Bama and then in the pros) have become the guardians of thousands of children. First at Big Oak Ranch for boys, and now with a second one for girls, and their own Christian school, they have literally shaped the lives of these children.

John had spoken at our annual IRONMEN Big Breakfast, where he challenged the men there to be men, and to raise their sons and daughters to be responsible and contributing people. It was a challenge that we all (especially the teenagers in attendance) needed to hear in this age of entitlement.

As I listened to John speak that morning, and reflected on the dinner I’d had with him and a couple of other guys the night before, I found myself thinking that if I have one tenth the impact over the course of my life that I believe John has had, I can die thinking that I have lived a very effective life.

The breakfast was over, John had signed books (he has several out, and all are well worth reading), and I was navigating him through the labyrinthine hallways of our church to find his car.

As we were walking along, one of our newer sextons, an immigrant from Haiti was walking towards us, and I simply said, “Morning, Junior.” He responded (that is his name, for the record), and John and I continued. That’s when John looked at me and said, “The greatness of a man is seen in the way he treats people he does not need.”

I was speechless. I felt that I’d just been paid a compliment (I really believe that is what John was doing), but to receive praise from someone as great as this man made me squirm.

I reflected on this some more, and realized that John was simply affirming what my general modus operandi is. I learned a long time ago that simply acknowledging someone else is a gift to that person, and one never knows how far that impact may go. Now, it’s not always easy, especially for a card carrying introvert like me (trust me; I function outside my comfort zone about 80% of the time), but I’ve learned that simply making eye contact and a short “Mornin’” can lift the day of someone who is feeling down and unloved.

So later today, and/or tomorrow, look someone you don’t know in the eye, and greet them. Practice that until it becomes second nature. You’ll learn that the people you don’t need, need you. And you will be a gracious person of greatness. You may get to where you are going thirty seconds later—but ultimately, when you get to where you are going in the eternal sense, you will hear that longed for “Well done, good and faithful servant; enter into the joy of your Master!”

 

I just counted up, and to date, after 30+ years of ministry in four cities, I have officiated at 343 wedding ceremonies. That’s a lot.

I have thoroughly enjoyed them all, and have more than a handful of stories to tell from them. One of these days I’m going to get all these (and funeral stories, as well as baptisms, routine Sundays, and all other kinds of experiences) written up, and use the title of this post as the title of a book. Here’s a sample of what can happen when you thought it was going to be an ordinary, routine, kind of service.

I was getting ready for the wedding ceremony on Saturday of a guy who was (is) a member of our church, who was marrying a lovely young woman who was not a member of the church. That is neither here nor there, but the fact that she was from Romania is a pertinent fact.

No, this was NOT a mail-order-bride kind of deal. She had won a Fulbright Scholarship and come to Georgia State to work on a Masters degree. along the way, she landed a job at the Centers for Disease Control here in Atlanta. Somehow she met this guy, they fell in love, and were getting married. We’d met for four premarital counseling sessions, planned the ceremony, and talked everything through. Her parents and siblings were coming from Romania for the wedding, and we had talked about her parents’ grasp of English, and what I needed to do in the ceremony to make it work well for them. They understood much more than they spoke, but we all felt comfortable with the way things were looking.

Friday afternoon we all met at the Church for the rehearsal. I talked everyone through what we were doing and going to do, then we got everyone in place as if the processional had just ended. The bride’s father was standing between the bride and groom (OK, an editorial comment here. That’s the way it is supposed to be. Some wedding directors [who can be third cousins to Satan, for the record] like to have the father on the bride’s left arm for choreography’s sake–they think it is a clearer shot to his seat without stepping on the bride’s train after he gives the bride away, but there is powerful symbolic value to having him between the couple until he gives her away. Here endeth the lesson.)

I talked us through the first part of the service, through the traditional questions of intent, then I turned and looked at this Romanian father and asked, “Who brings this woman to be married to this man?”

He looked at me and said, clearly and firmly, “Her mother and I.” Perfect. Spot on, just perfect. I talked him through taking her right hand and placing it in the groom’s left hand, then giving her a little kiss on her cheek, and then turning to his right, away from the bride and toward the groom, so he would not step on her dress and/or train.

As he turned, and rotated until he was face-to-face, eye-to-eye with the groom, he stopped, and looked the groom in the eye. He raised his right hand, index finger pointed straight up, as if to make a point. Then he made the slash motion across his throat, and the groom’s eyes bugged out, my jaw hit the floor, and everyone in the room held their breath . . . until the bride and her father started laughing out loud! The tension cut, we all realized this was a joke! The father went on to his seat, the groom heaved a great sigh of relief, and we all went on with the rehearsal. It went without a hitch.

And the next day, the wedding went without a hitch, as well-and the father did not repeat his action!

A couple of years  later, I was walking through one of the overflow spaces after one of our Christmas Eve services, when I saw this couple, and recognized her parents with them. My face lit up like a Christmas Tree, and theirs did, too. We moved to greet each other, and I smiled, looked at the father, and promptly made the slash motion across my throat. He erupted in laughter, as we all did, and we wished each other a Merry Christmas before parting.

A year or so after that, the couple had their first child, and I was honored to be asked to administer the baptism. It was a great reunion of the families, as her parents came over from Romania. Then a couple of years later, along came child number two. But grandparents could not swing the trip this time. I got an idea, and called the bride to ask if her parents would watch the worship service live on the internet (we webcast our services.) She said they would, so I asked her to teach me how to do the baptism in Romanian. She argued that it would be too hard, but I persisted, and she said it, slowly, so I could write it down phonetically. I ran it past her, she was surprised that I got it right, and said so.

All weekend I practiced it out loud, so it was firm in my mind. The moment came in  he service, and when I took the child in my arms, I asked if the bride’s parents were in fact watching on the internet in Romania. She said they were, so I said, “Well, I hope I get this right, but if I mess it up, the Lord knows what we are trying to do.” And I administered the baptism in Romanian, and handed the baby back to them.

Later that morning, between a couple of the services, I saw the couple. The bride said she talked to her mom on the phone, and when I said the first words in Romanian, her mom started to cry.

That may just be the greatest compliment I have ever been paid.

Ash Wednesday.

Yeah, I know it was a week ago, in fact a week ago today (at the time of this writing), but a story from an Ash Wednesday about 16 years ago has been rattling around in my soul since last week.

Growing up in the Presbyterian Church in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, I have no memory—zero, nada, zippo, zilch—of going to an Ash Wednesday service. Our church may have had them, but I don’t recall ever going. We were pretty darn regular at worship, even went to Sunday School, but the only midweek service I have a definite memory of attending was the Maundy Thursday service when I received my first Communion. (Times have changed in the Presbyterian Church since then, but that will be a matter for another day.)

So when I landed in Seminary, and Ash Wednesday was a significant deal, and everyone started talking about “giving something up” for Lent (like liver and onions, maybe?), my learning curve was pretty steep. But I’m a quick study, and I caught on pretty quickly.

Then I graduated from Seminary, and was turned loose on the church. That first year, the church I was serving had an Ash Wednesday service, as did every church I served. Until I moved to the thriving metropolis of Pascagoula, MS, and started serving the First Presbyterian Church there (more in a moment).

These Ash Wednesday services in Protestant churches were powerful, meaningful, and liberating. In each of them, at some point, there would be a large urn in the front of the chancel, and at some point in the service, people would come forward, and place a small piece of paper in the urn, on which they had drawn a symbol, or written a word, and the paper was dropped in the urn as a symbolic act of releasing whatever was written on the paper. More often than not, this was a kinesthetic act or turning loose, and what was drawn or written reflected what was holding the person back from giving themselves fully to God, or some habitual sin that they could not walk away from.

The act was powerful, made even more so by the burning of the pieces of paper, symbolically burning what held one back from God. After that, the sign of the cross would be placed on everyone’s forehead, to remind them that they have been sealed by God’s grace.

So it came as a surprise to me that when my family moved to Pascagoula, this coastal community in a largely Roman Catholic-influenced culture, there was no Ash Wednesday service. Maybe it was a reaction against the prevailing culture, or something else, but I was surprised to find there was not tradition.

So I started one.

The first year, the service was well attended, and we followed the practice of writing something on paper, dropping it in an urn, and burning it. But I made a critical error. I used blank index cards. They took forever to burn, and filled the Sanctuary with this noxious smoke that choked people, and left a lingering (unpleasant) scent for several days. Before that service was over, I knew what we needed to do.

“Theatrical flash paper,” I said to the chair of the Worship Committee. “That’s what we’ll use next year.”

And so we did. I located a source, bought some (it’s not cheap, and I was trying to do this inexpensively (because I’m a tight-fisted Scot Presbyterian), and practiced burning a small piece a few times to make sure it would work. Flash paper burns fast, leaving nothing—NOTHING—behind, It’s gone in a flash!

SO Ash Wednesday came around that year, and we had over a hundred people attend as I recall. We reached that point in the service when people were invited to bring their small pieces of paper forward and drop them in the urn. The lights of the Sanctuary were dimmed about 90%, leaving only a very little bit of light for folks to see and move around by.

I should add at this point that the urn we were using was really a brass flower container, maybe 18 inches tall, about five or so inches wide at the top, sloping down in a conical shape to a point at the bottom.

All of the lights in the church were out now, and I struck a match, and as I looked at the flame, right before I dropped it in the urn—with 100+ pieces of flash paper, remember—I thought, “You know, I’ve not done this with so much flash paper before; I don’t know what’s going to happen.” And I leaned back slightly, then dropped the match into the urn. I watched as for about two-tenths of a second, the paper started to burn away, when suddenly, kaWHOOSH!, there was this explosion of light as an intensely bright, incredibly hot ball of flame shot up out of that urn, into the air before it dissipated!

I kid you not; women screamed, children started crying, and I was shocked, blinded by the bright light in eyes that had adjusted to the darkness. I could not see anything.

And the heat; it was so intense, I wondered if my face had been scalded or scorched, if the hair on the front of my head had been burned off, if I’d lost my eyebrows.

But I knew I could not say or do anything to attract attention to myself (I learned later that our daughter Anne asked, “Mom, is Dad OK?”); I knew that I needed to root my comments in such  a way that the congregation was directed to what God was doing in their lives.

But I was wigging out. One side of my brain was talking to the congregation, saying things like, “It’s all gone. Whatever was holding you back from God is gone. The Lord has taken it away. It’s all gone.” While the other part of my brain was thinking, “Oh, no; what do I look like? Is my face burned? Is it black from soot? Do I have hair?” then I had the thought as I was talking that I could reach up and adjust my glasses, and as I did so, I could feel to see if I still had eyebrows. By now my eyes had readjusted to the light, and I was searching the faces of those up close to me to see if they were reacting in any way. I felt and knew that I still had eyebrows, so all was OK.

The lights came back up for us to sing the closing hymn, and when I saw one guy looking at me and laughing, I wondered what in the world I looked like—but it turned out I was not burned or scarred in any way, he was simply laughing at the same thing I have been laughing about for the last 16 or so years. It was just plain funny!

The next year, we used a different, MUCH shallower, and wider, urn. And we never again sent a fireball into the Sanctuary!

Sometimes you see things that you just can’t believe. But you know you saw them, and it was in a day and age before cell phones, and cameras were not everywhere, so memories just have to hold onto the images.

During the summers when I was in college, I worked for the Arkansas Highway Department. The money was good, and the work was laborious enough that I knew I did not want to do that for the rest of my life, which meant that my grades stayed good. For the first summer I was the goob out there shoveling traffic and waving the flag; by the middle of my second summer I’d graduated to driving a dump truck some. By the third summer I was driving most every day.

One of the more odious tasks that feel to the maintenance branch (which I worked in) was the weekly—or less often—emptying of the trash cans at the roadside rest area on Highway 65. This was in a day where fast food restaurants were not as prolific as they are today, and this was a state highway and not an interstate, and it was one of those places where people would pull over and eat lunch, take a break, snooze a little (rest area, remember?) before resuming their drive.

There was a small bathroom there, and a full-time attendant who managed it and kept it clean, but from time to time, we were sent to empty the trash cans.

For the record, the trash cans were 55 gallon oil drums. Steel oil drums. They must have weighed a ton (OK, ask.com says they weigh 44 pounds.) But fill them with rainwater, drink cups, ten-day-old lunch residue, diapers (eck!) and the like, and they weighed a LOT.

At the beginning of the summer, three of us would go to attend to this task. One guy would climb into the bed of the dump truck; two others would lift the drum out of its holder, hoist it up, and help tip it over to empty it. Later in the summer, two of us were sent; one to heft it up, the other guy in the bed of the truck.

By the end of the summer, I was sent alone. It was a task to get the drum out of its holder, then climb up the side of the truck while lifting the can with me, then dump it’s odiferous and retch-producing contents into the truck. Oh, there were three of these cans, as I recall.

On this particular day, I’d managed to finish this task, and I was headed to the county dump to drop all the refuse. I saw the Job Supervisor driving towards me from the opposite direction, then his revolving light on the top of his truck came on, signaling me to stop. Joe stopped, jumped out of his truck and ran across the highway.

“Chuck, there’s a dead cow on the county line! Turn your truck around and follow me; DeQuincey (that was the name of the guy, I promise you)  is on his way with the wrecker to pick it up, then we’ll put it in your truck and you can take it to the dump!”

Joe ran back to his truck and took off. I turned around and started to follow him. We reached the county line on Highway 65, but there was no dead cow. Two State Police cars, but no dead cow. Joe got out and spoke to them for a moment, then ran back to me.

“The cow is down at Tamo on the other end of the county; go on and dump this trash, I’ll run ahead and meet DeQuincey and turn him around. You then meet him at Tamo (the county line which marked our responsibilities was there) and y’all deal with the cow.”

I did what I was told, dumped all the trash, and headed on south on 65. I was nearing the county line, getting closer and closer, wondering “Where in the world IS this cow, and where is DeQuincey?” I was headed into a long, blind, left-hand turn, and I knew that the county line was just around the curve. And let me tell you, we did not cross the county line to do anything; if that cow was three feet across the line, it was the next county’s responsibility.

Where in the world IS this,” I wondered, as I came around the curve.

And then I saw it.

You have to understand that our wrecker was an ancient, almost dilapidated rig, with an A-frame design, two strong pieces of steel sloping back and upwards from right behind the cab of the truck until it reached a point about ten feet off the ground. From there, a steel cable could be dropped to wrap around wheels or axles to hoist a truck up.

As I came around the curve, I could not believe what I saw; right there, RIGHT ON the county line, was the dead cow. DeQuincey had gotten here ahead of me, dropped the steel cable, wrapped it around the cow, and there it was, right out in front of God and the rest of the world, hanging about ten feet off the ground! Rigor Mortis had set in, so the legs were sticking straight out from its body, ten feet off the ground! Cars driving by, people rubbernecking, wrecks almost happening, but there it was. A cow, hanging in midair.

I turned around, backed under it, and seconds later heard and felt a big WHUMP, as DeQuincey released the cable, and the cow landed in the bed of the dump truck. We went back to the maintenance yard and ate our lunch, then that afternoon took the cow to the county dump.

I would not have believed it if I had not seen it with my own eyes. Gee, I wish we’d had camera phones back then!

Lib & Chuck on the Springer Mtn summit

Lib & Chuck on the Springer Mtn summit

It sounded like a good idea at the time. At least it did to me.

Several months ago–in fact, around about this time last year, I asked my wife, Lib, if she would ever have any interest in going backpacking with me. It did not take much discussion, and she agreed to the idea. I would carry most of the equipment, all she would need to carry was her sleeping bag and mat, and very little else.

Over the last year I’d managed to nickel-and-dime things along until she was pretty well equipped: pad, sleeping bag, pack, a few other trinkets, but everything else, I had and we would share. I snagged a two-person tent, as I knew that as much as we enjoy each other, my one-man shelter would not cut it.

Then in May, she blew out her plantar fascia, partially tearing it (long story, but it involved chasing a school bus so it would not leave without a couple of kids; as Lib said, “The next to last day of school, you DO NOT want kids left at school at the end of the day!”); summer spent in a walking cast (all through Scotland), and rehab all fall turned 2013 into a wash. I got out some, but not with her.

Then along came Christmas, and a couple of days later, we were talking New Years Eve plans. Lib wondered about having people over, I posed the possibility of Springer Mountain. Shock of Shocks, she bit. Weather was clear, not too terribly cold, so the plans were on. It’s only a one-mile walk from a parking area to the summit, and we arrived around 3:30, making the camping area near the shelter by 4:00. We got the tent set up, then I walked Lib around to the summit, which hosts the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. After a few minutes of looking around, we made it back to camp; collected water, went to the tent and got our pads and bags laid out, then with dusk moving in, we started gathering firewood.

We’d collected a good bit, some we broke up, some we cut up (I carried a saw in, and had some troubles using it, which I could not understand, but do now), and started to build a fire. I had a couple of firestarters, and had humped in 4-5 small lumps of coal, so I set to light the fire.

The firestarter caught, and started working on the smallest sticks, and I noticed they were not real quick to catch. As I kept breaking wood up, and arranged the stove to prep dinner, I was curious as to why the wood was not catching. I tried all my tricks. Firestarter, butane lighter, coal, leaves, everything. Even pulled out the firestarter that I’d saved for the morning, and NOTHING worked. NOTHING. I could not believe it.

We cooked dinner (Thank God for the stove!) and ate it, had dessert (Bananas Foster) and hot chocolate, all the while still trying to get the fire started. Finally we came to the sinking conclusion that it was not going to happen.

With all the rain we’ve had this fall, and a deluge the weekend before we hit the trail, everything was wet. To add insult to injury, it was below freezing on the summit. In other words, the wet wood was frozen (thus my trouble with the saw). We simply were unable to get enough of a fire burning to thaw out and dry out wood to burn, in order to get enough of a fire to sustain itself off frozen wood.

In other words, when the wood is frozen, the fire won’t burn!

I’ve learned a lesson–next time, I’ll hump in a little flask of kerosene, and maybe a hatchet to split the wood.

I bet no one else got in bed at 7:00 PM New Year’s Eve; that was the only way to stay warm!