Saturday, August 18, 2018

10 Reasons I Love Watching Baseball

This one's just for fun. There's no spiritual lesson or observation here, except this: every good gift comes from God. I think baseball is one of those. At least it is to me.

A familiar sight: J.D. Martinez praising God upon
rounding the bases after hitting a home run.
I’m making a confession: I love watching baseball. I have watched more this year than any other season in my life, primarily for three reasons: 1.) My favorite team, the Red Sox, are absolutely dominating Major League Baseball; 2.) I’ve got with our (minimal) cable package; and 3.) I had a sabbatical this summer that allowed me time to watch. There are a handful of things that cause me to relax and feel happy as soon as I start. Baseball is one of those things. It doesn’t matter if it’s on TV or live, the effect is the same. So I’ve been wondering, “Why do I love it so much?” On this short post, I’m going to attempt to make a list.
1. I so admire the skill it takes to play the game well. Whether it’s a high school game or the Sox, these athletes are just different from most others. They’re not the fastest, tallest, or strongest athletes in sports. But they are so specialized with certain skills, and could be among the smartest or quickest thinkers in the sports world. I was not a very good baseball player (probably due to that “smartest” thing), so that makes me even more impressed with these talented athletes.
2. It’s a thinker’s game. The rules are many and the strategy is multi-faceted. In many ways, it’s like chess with real people. It’s not just the coaches who must do most of the thinking. One small mental lapse from one player can cost the whole team a game. And often does. And it’s the only sport I know that keeps record of errors!
Who encapsulates class and courage more than Jackie?
3. There is an incredible appreciation for history and tradition. I love that the statistics are riddled with players from every decade from the last one-hundred-plus years. Very little rules have changed. The organ is the same. The uniforms are the same (including metal spikes). The bats are made of wood (I wish this were the case with all ages!). While watching I feel somehow connected with generations past.
4. It’s a game that is diverse. Baseball is no respecter of persons. You can be born in poverty in the Dominican Republic or be from a wealthy family in California. It’s the American pastime, but they play it from Japan to Cuba. I read that about 30% of MLB players were born outside the USA. You can be huge or diminutive in size. I love the diversity. Jackie Robinson. ‘Nuff said.
5. It’s a game that requires courage. You stand in the way of a hard ball coming at you at 100 mph. You sometimes have to dive to attempt a catch or slide head-first. The fights are few, but real. Please forgive me, but I love this part. There is a code of respect that demands repayment for those who do something dirty. Come in cleats up on a second baseman, and expect to get beaned when you get in the batter’s box. Then expect retaliation. And when the benches clear, it gets crazy! It’s a man’s world where pride and honor matter.
6. It offers a break from the usual stressors of life. There is just very little politics or cultural rot that spoils the experience. It occasionally happens, but for the most part people behave because they seem to be there to escape the societal noise, too. There seems to be fewer politically active players using their platform to make their causes known. I really don’t want to know about all their causes. I just want to watch baseball. I hope this doesn’t change.
7. It’s not as intense as other sports. Believe me, I love football. Grew up in a football coach’s home, played it for 13 years of my life, and have coached myself. But football is not relaxing to watch (or play). Basketball seems to stay intense the whole game—and especially the last two minutes (which takes a half-an-hour). But baseball has spurts of intense play and moments of incredible pressure interspersed with long periods of deliberate strategy and intermission. You can have ongoing conversations with others during a game. You can enjoy a hotdog, a pretzel, and eat a whole bag of peanuts, all while sitting down and without spilling your drink.
8. It’s like art marrying science. I almost want to call it beauty in motion. Especially at the professional level; the players catch, throw, and swing with such precision and finesse. They make plays together like a symphony. The mathematical unlikelihood of hitting a small, spinning, spherical baseball moving at 100 mph with a small cylindrical bat into a limited area of play without any of the nine opponents catching the ball…is just amazing in itself. And many players average getting a hit between 20 and 30 percent of the time (some even more)!
9. It is a study on persistence and consistency over time. You can have three terrible at-bats, but the fourth might be a home run. Then you can get in a slump for a few games followed by a hitting streak. Unlike football where you can’t really afford to lose more than one or two games (if that many when you’re in the SEC!), you can lose a lot of games, but if you consistently win more than you lose, you’re in good shape for the playoffs. It really is about who can do the best over the long-haul. A lot like life!
10. Baseball players are just cool. They seem so composed and unflappable. They will accomplish some seemingly impossible athletic feat and just carry on afterward with maybe a quick smile to a teammate. Awesome. I wish I could be so cool!

Monday, July 30, 2018

Lessons From Sabbatical

Having been at Providence for over 21 years, I just finished my third sabbatical. As previously explained, sabbatical is a period of rest, research, and restoration for people in full-time ministry and other professions (like academia and counseling) so that they can avoid burnout and renew their creativity, passion, and effectiveness. Traditionally, a sabbatical occurs every seven years. The word comes from Sabbath (Greek, sabbaton; from the Hebrew, shabbath; lit. “rest”), which usually brings to mind the seventh day of the week, the biblical day of rest. Interestingly, the word is used for an entire year in Leviticus 25:1-5.
The Lord spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying, “Speak to the people of Israel… For six years you shall sow your field, and for six years you shall prune your vineyard and gather in its fruits, but in the seventh year there shall be a Sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a Sabbath to the Lord. You shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. You shall not reap what grows of itself in your harvest, or gather the grapes of your undressed vine. It shall be a year of solemn rest…”
It wasn’t just for the land, it was for those who worked the land (virtually everyone in that day). It’s a good idea. And I’m so happy that Providence instituted it for full-time ministry staff from the start.
When I’ve run into people from church this summer, I’ve frequently been asked, “How’s sabbatical going?” I try to give a short answer, like, “Great!” But it never seems to suffice. So here’s one that’s a little more complete with the top seven lessons I’ve learned from sabbatical this summer.

1. I needed some extended rest.
I’m sure there are some who decry a long break (we provide a month after seven years, and two
Darla & I in a gloating selfie after breaking the paddleball record.
The beach was great (um, after the tropical storm that hit us hard)!
months every seven thereafter). I understand the sentiment. In fact you might be saying, “I’ve been working in my job for 20 (30, 40, whatever) years and haven’t taken so much as a vacation!” While that’s a little extreme (someone actually told me this!), the truth is I understand the skepticism of those who have never had a long break from work. I could absolutely do that too because I love my job! In fact, I kind of let this sabbatical sneak up on me and had to pry my fingers away from doing ministry at Providence. It took me about two weeks to just relax and stop thinking about all the things I needed to do.
Let me say it plainly: I needed this long break. Unknowingly, my attitude, focus, and energy was being affected by what has been an unrelenting last few years, the last one in particular. As the weeks wore on this summer, I could feel my brain decompress. I found myself reinvigorated for my calling and job. If you’re struggling, maybe you need a long break too.

Here's what it looks like today.
2. Building a house is not easy. 
Ok, so I already knew that. Let’s just say that Darla and I are learning this lesson even more! After unexpectedly selling our house and unsuccessfully looking for another, we decided (after a whole lot of praying and seeking wise counsel) in June to bite this thing off and build ourselves, so we bought some property near Edgemoor Road, about 15 minutes from Providence. Whew! Making decisions, finding and scheduling subs, and getting all the details worked out is why people wisely pay contractors. And we’ve really only just begun. Seriously, we feel like we're learning a whole new trade (and I guess we actually are).
Here's the goal!
I’ve also met some good people who I would have never met otherwise and have had some great spiritual conversations. I'm super thankful for friends who are helping us and for Darla who is doing most of the contracting (especially now that I have to go back to work)! She's really organized and I'm good at shooting the bull. A great combo!!

3. Writing a book is real work. 
I’m not a writer so maybe it’s just me, but this task is HARD. I spent several days this summer researching and writing about my dad. It is exhausting! And I feel the proverbial mountain I have to climb to get this book written just keeps getting higher as I write.
A 38-year-old Ken Sparks
Some of the hardest parts include these three: 1) interviewing key people who have first-hand accounts, 2) working through the piles of articles, videos, and statistics to find what I need; and 3) fact-checking all the stuff, especially regarding some of the important games I think need to be described (probably not for the reasons you think!). And it’s emotional for me! I can watch a video on him and be in tears.
The next one is related…

4. I’m reminded how blessed I am for the earthly father God gave me. 
Ken Sparks was a great man. He lived and died well. I pray I can be a steward of his legacy and be like him in so many ways.

5. It's great to see what other churches are doing. 
This is a church in Georgia that has a similar mission & vision
as Providence that we visited. And yes, that's Dara leading!
I got to visit a wide variety (regarding style, tradition, and size) of churches this summer. All of them hold to God’s Word as true, all were fantastic (I tend to not be critical), and I learned things from each of them. I collected lots of printed material, shot lots of pictures and video, and made lots of notes. It seems I always heard from God when I went to worship, regardless of the church. That in itself is a lesson! I love that God uses so many churches who do things so differently to reach all kinds of people. I felt kinship with them all. I look forward to discussing with our staff and elders some of the things I experienced that might help us be better at Providence.
But all that visiting other churches makes the next lesson I learned even clearer...

6. I love Providence Church more than I ever knew.
I really do. The church is a group of redeemed people who have covenanted together to accomplish a mission. I love our people. I love our covenant together. I love our mission. I feel more committed to Providence than ever before! The really cool thing is that our church grew (over last year’s numbers) while I’ve been away! That shows what I already knew: Providence (unlike some churches) is about much more than merely following a man (unless the man is Jesus!). There aren't many pastors who stay at churches for 21 years (my 101-year-old grandmother who was a pastor's wife is still amazed), and there are even fewer who can honestly say that there's no church in the world where they'd rather serve than the one they're at. I'm so grateful. I can't think of a godlier group of elders, I can't think of a better staff, and I can't imagine a better group of people than those at Providence. What an awesome spiritual family I have! I have missed being with my church this summer...a lot!

7. I love my wife profoundly. 
Of course, I already knew this. But this break has given us significant time together. I’ve never gotten tired of her and she never gets on my nerves (I don’t think she could say the same of me!). As cliched as it sounds, she really is my best friend. We laugh together a lot. We are totally on the same page spiritually. We work well together and compliment each other’s giftedness. She has been through more hard times in the last year than any other year in our lives, and has come through looking even more like Jesus. I am amazed by her and more in love with her than ever. I made a great choice 29 years ago to ask her to be my wife. I had no idea how great. God had something (read: everything) to do with that.

There were many more lessons learned that I could tell you about like, "Life is possible without social media," "Sugar-free gummies cause violent stomach problems," "The beach isn't fun in tropical storms," "Extroverts need people around," "Abstaining from reading/watching news makes you happier," "Beagles like skunks," and "Ticks & mosquitoes suck" (there are stories for all of these!). And many other good things happened this summer. Among them, I read some good books, hiked some great hikes, made some great new friends, ate some good food, caught up on sleep, got to watch a lot of baseball, and (most importantly) spent some great time with Jesus. Thank you Providence, for allowing me to have this time!

Monday, July 2, 2018

We've Moved!

Well, kinda. I'm still at Providence, we're still in West Knoxville (actually Farragut instead of Karns now), but we're not finished moving. That's because through a crazy set of circumstances we've decided to build a house.

Here's the story...well, first some backstory:

From the time our middle child, Duncan, left for college almost five years ago, all our kids started telling us we needed to sell our house in Karns and downsize or get out in the country or buy an older house with more character or something. We just laughed, because we didn't have any desire to move, much less take on a fixer-upper project. Besides, why did they want us to sell the house in which they grew up? Go figure. So through continued prodding, we tippy-toed into the idea, thinking how it would be nice to have a smaller home, or a house away from a major highway, or something with a big garage where I can work on stuff. This curiosity gained momentum as Darla started seeing how much houses were selling for and some of the cool places she found on realty websites (like Zillow, etc.). Many of you may be familiar with this phenomenon. Once the train gets moving in that direction...I think you get my point. For the whole beginning part of this pursuit, I was dubious and unenthusiastic about moving. Secretly, however, I was thinking about all the appliances that were wearing out in our house that needed to be replaced. I was thinking about how every surface needed to be upgraded and about all the repairs that were needed. And it WOULD be nice to have a decent garage! So the song goes.

Long story short...we put the house up for sale and asked a reasonable price that I believed did not need to be lower. Good friends were our realtors, and they almost immediately got a bite. This older couple from out-of-town who had great credit wanted it—especially the wife. "Whoa! Are we really doing this?" I asked. They signed a contract and so began all the (many) inspections for their VA loan. Meanwhile, we started scrambling to find something. Truth is, we saw that our house wasn't so bad after all, and that it would be extremely hard to find something already built that we would be happy with. After looking at several different houses we were not feeling good. One of the most difficult things (and kinda funny) is that Darla kept extending the search area. So after praying about it (seriously) I gave her a limit. Any house we consider must be LESS than 20 minutes from Providence. For the next month, she almost daily sent me listings of houses that were 26 minutes, 23 minutes, 21, get the point. We had some stress in our marriage over it! Virtually every time she called me and said, "I may have found us a house!" I would reply, "How far from Providence is it?" and she would avoid the question and say something about it that she knew I'd like. "It's got a great garage!" "But how far is it from the church?" It would drive her (and me) crazy! Then, of course, we would find something we liked but it would be way over our price range. I would remind her of that and she would get frustrated. I think our wonderful realtors were getting frustrated with me too (although they promise they were not)! Truth is, I would have been frustrated with me!

Thankfully the couple wanting to buy our house backed out, citing one of the inspectors who had pointed out some minor things that they didn't even ask if we'd fix. They probably just found something they wanted more. Whew! I loved our neighborhood and neighbors, I liked our pretty private back yard, and I like Karns—a community that we had been a part of for 21 years! In my mind, this was all God telling us, "I don't want you to move." We happily decided to stay. Good thing, too, because my Dad soon became very sick and passed away a few months later, and several other things happened that made 2017 an extremely hard year.

But God was really saying, "I don't want you to move...YET."

So now, here's the story.

Over a year later, we were at church on Christmas Eve, when after the service a couple we love approached us and asked, "Y'all wouldn't be willing to sell us your house, would you?" We had invited them over for dinner many months earlier and we may have mentioned at the time that our kids wanted us to move. They told us they loved our house and yard and neighborhood, that their daughter went to school at GCA which is one mile away, and that they had been looking for a house to no avail. "Would y'all just give us a price?" 

Later that week, we invited them over to talk, we agreed on a price and it was done. 

Meanwhile, another good friend who goes to Providence was looking for land upon which to build a house, and found some that had been for sale and tied up in a complex family for years. He began to work hard to clear the obstacles and made an offer to the family to buy the land. He had mentioned it to me back when we were looking to move. We mused about how great it would be to be neighbors (he also likes to work on cars) and how nice the land was (woods two miles from Providence!) and other stuff. But after the sale of our house fell through, the idea faded. But he was still working on it. Months later his efforts paid off and the family sold him the land. Not knowing what was going on with us, he asked me if I thought I'd ever want to revisit that idea to build on some land. I said, "Actually, funny that you should ask..." and told him what happened. That all transpired (I may have gotten some details out of order) WITHIN ONE WEEK! Now Dara, our youngest, had just moved to college and we were empty-nesters. 

But building a house is expensive and we can't build one in a couple of months (when we'd have to get out of the house). So we asked another couple in our church who "just happened" to have bought a project house as an investment that they didn't have specific plans for yet, if they would consider renting it to us. They graciously said they would. This also happened that same week! I'm noticing a theme here, are you? Yes, that's how it seemed to us, that God was indicating it was time.

Again, long story short, we had a HUGE moving sale to off-load all the junk we (like most American families) had acquired as three kids had grown up,  closed on the house, and moved out to our temporary home in Farragut. 

As we pursued purchasing the property two miles from the church, things were becoming a bit tangled, and it had to do with some deed restrictions, neighbors, uncertainty about a graveyard on the property and encroaching Hardin Valley development. Also, our good friend, who was wonderfully helpful (and rather surprised that we were really going to take him up on his offer), was sweating whether or not we were going to be able to do it for a reasonable price and in a reasonable timeframe, as the restrictions hindered our plans.

As we were feeling (for the first time) a little hesitation about the plan, Darla looked on Zillow again. And wouldn't you know it? She hit paydirt. Or, um, dirt we would pay for. Yes, she found a piece of property, 15-17 minutes from Providence (about the same time-of-drive we had from Karns), that was like a little slice of my beloved Jefferson County home! It has a long access to a country road just off of Old Emory Road, just outside Knox County near Oak Ridge (but is actually a Clinton address). We prayed and researched and prayed some more. We found a house plan we like that is smaller than the house we had (3 bedrooms and 2.5 baths, instead of 5 bedrooms+1 bonus and 4 baths). And hopefully I'll get my garage workspace!! 

Oh, and one more "God-timing" thing? This "just happens" to be the year I have a sabbatical, which gives me some much-needed flexibility this summer to get things started.

Ok, here's the quick "So what?": God's timing is right. He is sovereign. As his children, we are wise to simply ask him to show us his pleasure and will. Then, once we recognize and diligently test it, we should move. Sometimes literally! 

"But," someone might ask, "what if you get neck-deep in this build and the economy stumbles and/or Providence decides they want a different pastor and/or you and/or Darla get sick and/or you realize you can't afford this home and/or..." Yep. We've struggled with some of those questions and more. Discerning God's will for something as this-worldly as where we will live is no exact science. It's not like discerning whether God wants me to cheat on my wife (his word is quite clear about that). It's more like applying points of biblical wisdom: will this help/hurt me minister to the Providence flock? Is this unreasonable or enslaving debt? Is this a good investment? Are we motivated by pride or self in this? Or are we motivated by bringing glory to God? Are we placing our hope and desire on this world or the next? These are the important questions that matter. 

I'll try to give updates as we work on our new house. Pray that God will help us be good stewards of what he's given us and listen to his wisdom.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Worshiping on Sabbatical

Laurel-covered cliffs atop Mt. Le Conte.
Thankfully, our church has a policy allowing full time ministry staff to take significant time for rest and restoration every seven years. I am very grateful. I've been at Providence 21 years and am surprised at how much I needed this break. We went to the beach first, then we came home for a week to start building a new house (crazy story about how/why we moved—maybe later!) and then left to go camping in Miss Daisy. We just got back. I've been away long enough now to shed some anxiety that I didn't know I was living in. Do fish know they're in water when that's where they live? And THAT'S why we have sabbatical.

One of the activities I have gotten to do again (in addition to blogging!) is to worship with Christians other than those at Providence Church. So far, I haven't gone to any big hip or happening churches about which everyone is all abuzz. That's what I usually do so I can learn about what new stuff they are doing. Instead, among those I've attended are a small church in Port St. Joe Florida, Providence Jefferson City (a church we planted years ago), and a service at the campground amphitheater led by a college student with A Christian Ministry in the National Parks (ACMNP) at Elkmont. All these worship experiences have been great for me and I could write a post on each of them. But I want to say a little bit about the latter.

Friends, family, and dogs just behind our site.
It rained for parts of most of the days we camped, and Sunday was no different. It had already showered Sunday morning when the student with ACMNP passed by our site while we ate breakfast and told us about the service. We had already talked about going, but hadn't seen any signs that services were happening. We walked to the amphitheater for the 10 AM service and there was only one other camper there, so we took a seat on our raincoats. Then others trickled in—people from New York to Mississippi—about 20 total (not counting the big dog someone brought). The sun peeked through the clouds. Emily, the college student who invited us a couple of hours earlier was the only leader. She welcomed everyone, passed out worship booklets, strapped on a guitar and invited everyone to stand and sing with her. It was a contemporary hymn by the Gettys. No microphone, lights, projector... nothing. We did some responsive reading, sang another song, and she seated everyone asking us to turn to 1Kings 19. She read the familiar passage about Elijah fleeing from Jezebel after defeating the prophets of Baal, and then hitting a wall of exhaustion and discouragement. He just wanted to die. God provided an angel to prepare food for him and told him to eat "for the journey is too great for you." Elijah then walked 40 days to "the mountain of God" and hid in a cave where God finally spoke. "What are you doing here, Elijah?" God asked.

As soon as I read this along with Emily, I almost broke out in tears, which caught me by surprise. The rest of the world went away and [in my heart] God asked me the same question. "What are you doing here, Chad?" It's amazing, the power of God's word, especially when read with other believers gathered to hear from God. I realized God was speaking to me. I, like Elijah, was tired, discouraged, and even after experiencing some ministry success, felt despair after difficulty has come my way. I felt like a failure and I hadn't even acknowledged it. "What AM I doing?" I thought. For that moment I didn't have an answer.
A little wooden bridge across the Little River near Elkmont.

Elijah then spoke for me. “I have been very jealous [some translations: "zealous"] for the Lord, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.” Now, obviously, no one is wanting to kill me (that I know about!). But despite zeal for Christ I have experienced unrivaled spiritual warfare in my life over the past year. And it is lonely. And everything in me has wanted to give up at times. And sometimes it can feel like no one understands. And God doesn't seem to be acting.

God told Elijah to step outside the cave, and we know what happened next:
 And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper.         
1Kings 19:11-12 
Then God asked again, "What are you doing here, Elijah?" Elijah answered just as before, yet perhaps this time (I have imagined) much more softly and contemplatively. I too thought about his [and my] answer more. It seems shallower and more self-focused this time. Here is God who had graciously called Elijah [and me] to serve him. Here is God who had showed up before the prophets of Baal showing his unmistakable presence and power. Here is God who had used Elijah, promoted Elijah, hidden Elijah, and fed Elijah (just as he has me). Now God, like a gentle Father spends time with Elijah reminding him of his power yet speaking to him with tenderness and concern.

Emily's message was much more a devotional than a sermon. It was reminiscent of the kind of talk I've heard numerous times from students who were fairly new to the faith and the Bible. She gave some brief context and then simply shared her take on the story, meshing it with her own journey. She reminded us that sometimes when we experience hard times in the busy-ness of life it takes getting alone with God on the mountain to hear him whisper. Yeah, it was that simple...and great. We sang another song and cited a creed. Darla and I greeted some worshipers (and the dog) and walked back to our camp site. I remembered the rest of the story. Elijah left that experience with specific instructions from God to anoint new kings for Syria and Israel, and anoint a prophet to replace himself. God was about to move by replacing the current political and religious leadership. And things weren't as bad as Elijah thought. God told him, “I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.” Effectively saying, "I've been at work, Elijah. You're not alone, and the story doesn't begin or end with you." Elijah did much more before God took him into heaven in a whirlwind with chariots of fire—one of only two people in human history who never died physically.
Dara and I on a climb.

Yes, ministry is taxing—thank you God (and Providence) for some needed time at the "mountain of God"—the journey IS too great for me. Yes, it's easy to be self-focused instead of God-focused which results in stress and loneliness. Yes, God is at work, whether we see him or not.  And yes, God cares for his children as a loving and gentle Father: whispering, encouraging, reminding, strengthening, and using us for his glory.

Ha! I guess I needed four "so whats" for myself.

I miss worshiping with my Providence family. It is always one of the hardest things about being on sabbatical because I LOVE Providence. I love listening to the podcasts of the services. But God is using my time away in many ways including speaking through different gatherings of Christians and his word to me.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Jesus I My Cross Have Taken

By Bryan McKaig
Guest Blogger

The first time I heard the hymn “Jesus, I My Cross Have Taken” was at a Reformed University Fellowship service on the campus the University of Tennessee. I had been attending these week night meetings for several months, coming back every week for the unvarnished and practical Bible teaching and stripped-down, simple worship music. In a large college auditorium class room, I stood in front of a squeaky, wooden, fold-down seat and sang as I read these lyrics from an overhead transparency projector:

Jesus, I my cross have taken, all to leave and follow thee. Destitute, despised, forsaken, thou from hence my all shalt be.

As the song went on, led by a young woman with an acoustic guitar and a fuzzy headed college guy with an upright bass, I began to be overwhelmed by the unyielding joy found in the lyrics. The song absolutely slayed me. It still does.

What moved me to tears about the hymn that night in college was the absolutely thorough way in which it expresses it’s central theme: that to live is Christ, and to die is gain. Without directly quoting Paul’s famous line from Philippians 1:21, this song spends six glorious verses joyfully embracing Jesus’ call to take up our cross and follow him. 

Fast forward from sometime in 2002 to March, 2018. At Providence, we’re in the middle of a four-week deep dive into Jesus’ final day before his crucifixion. It’s Sunday, March 11, and Anthony Burton is preaching on Luke 23:26-31. Simon of Cyrene is compelled to carry Jesus’ cross for him, presumably because Jesus was too badly injured from his previous beatings to haul a large wooden beam very far. And as a crowd follows them down a Jerusalem road, weeping for him, Jesus tells them that they really should be weeping for themselves, because there’s a worse day coming to the Jews of Jerusalem in a few decades.
All of this brought to mind one of Jesus' most shocking teachings: that if you want to be Jesus’ disciple, you have to deny yourself, take up your own cross daily, and follow him. 

Every week, as we plan our services at Providence, we consider what songs would best prepare people to receive what God has for us in the scripture we’ll be studying. We choose songs that we think will help tie together the themes from God’s word with the realities of our lives, and help us take his word into ourselves with the help of his Spirit. And in light of this part of Jesus’ story, this incredible hymn was one of the first things that entered my mind. We sang it Sunday, and revisited a couple of verses at the end of the service. I heard people singing loudly, which is always the sound I hope to hear in a worship service. A few folks asked me about the song afterward, and I heard through others that it really got some folks thinking. Still others said they wanted to understand the song better, becuase some parts had been a little tough to follow.

So I want to take a minute and walk you through these lyrics. There are a few things to keep in mind:

1. These words are old. Henry F. Lyte published them in 1824, and they sound like it. There are words like “thee” and “thou,” which people didn’t normally use, even back then. The rest of the language is pretty standard poetic stuff for the 19th century. Just for reference: thee/thou = you,  thy = your. And did you know that “thou," “thee," and “thy” were actually the more personal, intimate words to use. You would call a superior “you,” but your family member would be “thou.” Point is, old words can be confusing.

2. Old words are worth the work, in this case. You might ask why we should bother preserving old songs like this in worship. Aren’t there plenty of great worship songs being written today that you don’t need a degree to understand? Well, yes, there are. And no, that doesn’t mean we don’t need to dig into the old stuff. There’s a connection to the past in older music that can remind us that we are one with all the followers of Christ throughout history. They sang this song in church two hundred years ago! There are also sometimes old songs that just express something that nobody has quite managed to match since. I think this is one of those songs.

3. There’s a strong stream in early 21st century American culture that doesn’t like thinking, that encourages us to only process short sound bytes of information, in quick bursts. That influence can make it hard to focus on complex thoughts, like the ones in some old hymns, or even the ones in the Bible. It’s more valuable than ever to practice using the minds God gave us as a means of loving and worshiping him, when binge watching yet another season of some nostalgic 90’s show or soaking up sensational news headlines can be so appealing to our information-saturated brains.

That being said, here are a few key verses of this song, broken down and elaborated.

The first verse is a simple statement of commitment: 
Jesus, I my cross have taken
All to leave and follow thee
Destitute, despised, forsaken
Thou from hence my all shalt be.

Even through the syntax sounds like something Yoda might say to Luke, it’s really quite simple: 
  • Jesus, I’ve taken my cross, I’m leaving everything, I’m following you. Even if I end up poor, friendless, and alone, from now on, you will be everything to me.

Verse 3 has one of my favorite lines in the hymn:
Oh, ’tis not in grief to harm me
while thy love is left to me
Oh, ‘twere not in joy to charm me
were that joy unmixed with thee.

Did you get that? No? Here’s what it means:  
  • Sadness cannot hurt me while I have your love. Happiness cannot attract me if you’re not involved. 

Verse 4 contains maybe the hardest line in the song to say:
Go then, earthy fame and treasure
come, disaster, scorn, and pain.
In thy service pain is pleasure
with thy favor, loss is gain.

How difficult is that to say? It’s so difficult:
  • As far as the good life goes: it can leave me. As far as terrible experiences go: bring ‘em on. When I am serving you, Jesus, whatever hurts reminds me of your pleasure with me, and if you are pleased with me, I’m better off without the good things in life. 

Verse 5 does something that we see a lot in the Psalms; it addresses our own soul. This is a powerful poetic device for prayerful worship link this - you are speaking to your own soul within yourself, reminding yourself to remember what is true: 
Soul, then know thy full salvation
rise o’er sin or fear or care
Joy to find in every station
something still to do or bear
Think what Spirit dwells within thee! 
Think what Father’s smiles are thine!
Think that Jesus died to win thee!
Child of heaven, cans’t thou repine?

Ok, so: “station” means “stage or situation in life.” “Repine” means “mourn or be sad.”  So the verse says: 
  • Hey! Self! Get a grip on what your salvation really means! Rise above sin, fear, and worry, as you find joy in whatever situation you find yourself! There’s something in it for you to do, or some burden for you to bear. JUST THINK!!! God’s Spirit is in you! God is your Father, and his smiles are yours! Jesus died for you! Child of heaven, can you really mourn hopelessly?

The last verse takes us into eternity, when all of the suffering will give way to unmitigated joy and unpolluted fulfillment.
Haste thee on from grace to glory
armed by faith and winged by prayer!
Heaven’s eternal days before thee,
God’s own hand shall guide us there!
Soon shall close thy earthly mission,
Swift shall pass thy pilgrim days!
Hope shall change to glad fruition, 
faith to sight, and prayer to praise!

This is the good stuff! We finish the song with our eyes on the true motivation for enduring suffering in this life: There will be fruition. There will be fruit. There will be a brilliant, perfect, worth-it-all result. Here’s a paraphrase of this final verse: 
  • Go! Speed on through a life sustained by God’s grace to the presence of his glory! Your weapon is faith, and your wings are prayer, and God has his hand on you, guiding you into his presence. Your mission here will be over soon, and your days as a weary traveler will end. What you hoped for, you will have. What you prayed for, you will see. What you trusted God for, you will praise him for.

What’s the point then? Gain. Being a disciple is all about what you get: and what you get is not your best life now. What you get is God. And that will either seem like the greatest gift in the world to you, or it will seem like nothing. If you see God as the greatest thing you can ever have, then your suffering, what you give up to follow him, the pleasures you don’t take part in - those will seem like nothing, and he will be everything.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Crazy May

We're very proud of Drew. He's now doing
web-based marketing at Weigels.
Wow! It's the end of another crazy May. I've long noticed (for the last 25 years or so) that May is just a hectic month. There are several birthdays in our family (including Darla's, Drew's and my sister's), our anniversary (this year marked 27 years), Mothers Day, the end of the school year (made more crazy due to Drew's and Dara's graduations from college and high school, respectively), and the beginning of consistently warm weather. That brings on gardening and yard work, not to mention outdoor activities of other sorts. In addition to these things, Drew bought and moved into his first house, Duncan got engaged to be married and moved out of her college house, and Dara determined where she would go to college, bought a car and sold her truck.
Yes, Truck Norris now has a new owner. I'm kind of sad to see him go. We had pretty recently replaced the engine with a brand new AMC 304 v-8 and everything was finally running right! Wow the blood, sweat, and tears that I put into that truck! But the new owner seems very excited and will no doubt continue to give it great care.

My Wag, after body repairs, before paint.

Not my Wag. This is the kind of old school stripe I'm getting!
My Wagoneer has been another iron I've had in the fire. Since February it's been in the shop getting fixed and painted. By fixed I mean all the damage from my wreck has been repaired, plus any rust on the truck has been repaired with new metal. Now it's really getting close to being ready for paint. I'm painting it the same color it had, which is a tiny bit brighter than the original "black cherry" (dark maroon) it came with from the factory. The previous owner had given it a respray that was a beautiful improvement on the already great color (it is a little more pearly-metallic than the original) but the paint job itself was not the best. It had places of overspray and some runs, and the wood grain decal and trim had not been replaced, and it was cracking and fading. Most people never saw these flaws, but I did and it was quickly getting worse. The biggest issue was the rust that was starting to bubble and show at the bottom of the quarter panels (a typical Wagoneer issue). I'm going to do something different regarding the wood siding. I found the chrome trim for an early 1970s Wagoneer that highlights the distinctive lines that were covered in the the 1980s by all that wood grain vinyl. I am going to just do wood grain on the 4-6 inch stripe that runs the length of the Wagoneer just below the door handles inside my new chrome trim. It's been a hassle to resolve all the problems, but I can't wait to see how it turns out. It will be a unique Wagoneer!

Here's Joe, tearing down an old 360 I bought to rebuild.
After having it machined (bored .030 over), ported, and
installing a new intake, pistons, four-barrel carb, etc.,
it should be a stud. I hope it lasts as long as the old one!
What's more, I'm getting a new engine built for the Wagoneer. The original one that's currently in it has about 250,000 miles. That's a lot for a carbureted AMC 360, even though they were great engines when designed in the late 1960s. A friend introduced me to an engine builder who I really like. He's a Mopar guy (for you non-motorheads, that means he likes Chryslers, Dodges, and Plymouths, particularly the Hemi muscle car varieties), but he agreed to help me build an AMC 360 for the Wag that has 300 hp, and 400 lb. ft. of torque. That's not crazy power, but it is definitely much more than the Wagoneer has ever had (144 net hp, and 280 lb. ft. when new). That should allow the Wagoneer to pull Daisy our camper up any mountain that has a road. I can't wait! This was all made possible because of the hit-and-run that happened to me last August. I was hoping the Wag would be finished by our usual Father's Day camping trip, but I don't think it's going to happen. But that's ok. I really just want all these jobs done right.

I'm sure I'll write a post on all this Wagoneer stuff once everything's done (will it ever be done?).

Hopefully, things will begin to settle down a little. Right now I'm speaking at a marriage conference in LA (Lower Alabama) for Coaches Outreach.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Ruminating About Running

It’s a beautiful day, and it started off well. After having a quiet time, I went to run at the Victor Ashe and Northwest Greenways. Pretty nice little trail—especially the part that goes along Third Creek—and surprisingly few people using it. I probably only ran three miles today. I’m still not going very fast and I am struggling (especially up hills) but I’m finally noticing some improvement. I’ve been running consistently again for four weeks, since the week after my dad died, about three days a week. I look forward to when I can run five or six miles at a decent pace. I haven’t run at all since last fall—and didn’t do it consistently then. I decided to get serious about this for a number of reasons:

1. I’ve lost 30-35 pounds and have kept it off for two years but have plateaued (weight loss-wise) at 172-175 pounds. I still have a flabby belly and need to get in shape. This was the plan: first lose weight and keep it off, then get in shape. I tried several times to get in a habit of running again when I weighed 200+ lbs. and it hurt my knees and back. I totally get it! It was like having a 35-pound backpack strapped on! Crazy!

2. Someone recently said I looked “frail.” I guess it’s better than “fat” or “fiendish” or “frightful” but I don’t like the idea of being frail. Truth is, I’ve resisted the temptation to lift weights (something I enjoy doing much more than running!) because I tend to get thick and don’t want to look that way (or have to buy new clothes). Opposite of frail, I fear working out can make me look like I am vain or take pride in my muscularity (maybe not at my age! I could be just telling myself that!). Admittedly, I’m kinda suspicious of 50-year-old men with noticeable muscles (especially when they have a great tan and gold nugget jewelry). I think I would rather give off the impression of humility. I’m not naturally skinny. I’m naturally stocky. It’s amazing how quickly my body wants to return to default setting! I have to fight it all the time.

3. My dad was disciplined physically and always encouraged me to be. He ran, as long as he was able, his whole adult life. I’ve thought about this a lot since his decline and death. I always respected him for this discipline, and probably because of it he lived longer than any males in his ancestry that we know about, despite having cancer!! His father and grandfather both died in their fifties.

4. I’m fifty! Besides my Sparks heritage, I’m not getting any younger and it’s not going to get any easier to get in shape!

5. My stage in life has finally allowed for more flexible time to do so. I only have one kid who is still at home (and she’s leaving for college in June) who is driving, busy, and quite independent. Thankfully, the church is in a place staff-wise that does not require me to spend as much time as I have in the past doing more than I should. Yes, it's still very busy, but my schedule is more controllable (versus being more in control of me!). Thank you, Lord. Truth is, time (or lack of it) is usually the primary factor determining whether or not I am working out.

Back-in-the-day flashback. Had to work
to GAIN weight back then. Not now.
6. The weather is great this time of year. I wanted  to get started running months ago but the weather was a discouraging factor. I know, call me a wimp. I’m just practical. I know that I need the right conditions to get started if I’m going to stick with it. Hopefully, the worst part is now in the rear view mirror. God, help me to stay with it. I’d love to find a chin-up bar and place where I can do some push-ups and sit-ups and I’d love to play something like tennis or basketball or racquetball regularly where I can get some supplemental vigorous and fun exercise. But those might be hard on the old man joints and back. I still wake up most mornings with a stiff and mildly painful back (11 years after surgery). And I don’t want to get an injury and have to have more surgery. And I really don’t want to do the very popular HIT (high intensity training) or CrossFit as a few of my friends are doing. For one thing I hate being sore! I was sore for over a decade of playing football and other athletics when I worked out hard. And I really don't have the time and don’t want to be looking like a fitness nut or a weight lifter (not that I could or that there’s anything wrong with any of that, just not the goal)!

Here’s my real motivation: I just want to be reasonably healthy and do everything possible as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 9, “to become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings” (verses 22-23). Paul says we should “run” in such a way as to win the prize. And just as athletes exercise self-control, I should “discipline my body and keep it under control,” literally, “pummel my body” (v. 27). The prize we desire is not like those trophies or benefits that perish, but is a much greater “imperishable” one (v. 25). Whatever that is, that’s what I want. He said that he did not want to be “disqualified” “after preaching to others.” I’ve thought long and hard about what that means. I don’t think it means we would be disqualified for heaven. I think it means that there are “preachers” out there (not just professional preaching pastors, but Christians who are proclaimers of the Gospel) who are considered “disqualified” both in the minds of those who hear their words (even if they preach the truth of God) and perhaps in the view of God himself if they did not practice what they preached or believed. Among other things, we preach that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit who indwells us. His temple should reflect our respect for him. We preach that our highest goal is to bring glory to God. Just as our homes should not be sloppy and an embarrassment since it is a reflection on our God, neither should our bodies be. They reflect our diligence and care. We preach that God wants us to live circumspect lives and to do all things “as unto God and not men.” So we do not seek physical fitness or anything else “aimlessly…as one beating the air” (v. 26) but as one who has a purpose. That purpose is to glorify God. Paul said to his disciple and young pastor, Timothy, “bodily training is of some value…” but he is quick to remind him what is much more important: “godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come” (1Timothy 4:8).

I’ve been around athletes, health nuts, and people who want to look athletic all my life. For much of my life I’ve pursued physical fitness and athletic excellence. Here’s one of those places where a proper balance of moderation and self-discipline should triumph. Like other good things, a lack of wisdom and proportion can make good the enemy of best. I’m speaking of my own situation not others’, so please don’t misunderstand. I know there are all kinds of variables regarding physical fitness for everyone, and we’re all different. I just know my sinful heart. If I’m not struggling with laziness, I’m struggling with the temptation to compete and be obsessed over the next athletic goal. Been there. Not going back. Lord help me.

God, I just want to make the most of the days you’ve given me on this earth. I just want to be able to communicate your truth without being a distraction or detriment in any way. I want you to be seen and known and loved and obeyed. I want to be completely yielded to you so that I can be used by you. Help me to know where physical training fits in to all this. I love you.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

"Eventful" Is An Understatement

I'm a pretty sorry blogger. But if I've ever had an excuse for not writing new posts, 'tis now. In the last few weeks my father quickly declined and passed away, my daughter's boyfriend asked our permission to propose to her and they were engaged, and I turned 50! I've also been writing in hopes of one day publishing a book about my father. All of this is in addition to pastoring and teaching at Providence Church!
I'm not seeking sympathy. In fact, I'm a little concerned that I'm feeling as upbeat as I do!
Big sister Duncan on the left in 2004 at age 8. Big
time daddy's girl. Now she's getting married.

I have always dreaded the day my little girl would be engaged to be married. I'm the guy that has always had to turn off the radio when any of the many songs like "Butterfly Kisses" comes on. I just can't hardly bear to think of it. But God is so gracious. My daughter, Duncan, couldn't have found a better guy. Ben Davenport is the one for whom I've been praying for over 21 years, since when we found out that Darla was pregnant with a little girl. Ben is humble and loves Jesus more than anything else. His character is strong. He loves and esteems Duncan and treats her with the utmost of respect and gentleness. He's a hard worker and is honest to a fault (if that's possible). When I say "Duncan couldn't have found a better guy," I truly mean, God found Ben for her. She has always had extremely high standards for guys, hardly dating at all in high school, and has taken some ribbing from friends for that reason. Ben is why girls are wise to be picky. When I say he's "the one for whom I've been praying," I mean he's not just that future husband "somewhere out there" who I prayed for, but he's the kind of man for whom I've been praying for my daughter.
Duncan and I at the beach.
I pray (and did again even now) for the woman who God has for Drew, and the man God has for Dara. Far more important than getting our kids through college and on their way to a healthy and financially stable and happy life, is that they marry godly people. This is, from a worldly perspective, the single most important factor that determines all the rest. I believe God is in control of this and that they, by yielding their lives to him–trusting him with all their hearts, he will "direct [their] path." And it is true for anyone.
So I am joyful in my heart about Duncan's engagement.

Coach Ken Sparks with his
game face circa 1988.
I was playing at CN during this time.
My father's decline and death was a seismic event in my life. He has been without a doubt the most influential person in the world to me. Even in his last month, I watched him continue to grow closer to Christ. He read a book about heaven. He wanted to talk with me about dying well. He wanted to work on a book about how the Gospel had changed him and others through him. He told me of how he understood the sovereignty of God more than he ever had and talked about God's perfect purpose and will. And he wanted to go to be with Jesus. The last three or four days of his life were brutal. He was so weak. He couldn't even turn on his side or sit up by himself. He was trapped in a body. But despite his pain and helplessness, he still exhibited the fruit of the Spirit. My phone was accidentally silenced when Carol (my stepmother) called me to tell me he had passed away. She tried several times early that Tuesday morning. She finally called Darla who told me. Upon hearing, I was immediately thankful and relieved. A couple of days beforehand, I had begun praying that God would take him because he was suffering and wanted to be with Christ so desperately. God answered.
My dad, sister, and I in August 1971. That's
our red 1968 Volkswagen dad bought new
that later became my first car.
The funeral was all good. After the private burial with family and his coaches and their families, we had the longest receiving of friends I've ever seen! An exhausting four-and-a-half hours. My feet were killing me! Dad had asked me to do the funeral. You can see it here. Other than a very brief battle with emotion in the first few minutes of the sermon, I never struggled or cried. Still haven't! I have felt a little guilty about this. "Why have I not broken down and shed tears about my dad's passing?" I have asked myself. Well, because I've had almost five years to say goodbye. And because I know how ready he was to see Christ. As long as I can remember, he has been talking about that day when he would "shed his earth suit." Well, that earth suit was ready to be shed, let me tell you.
The last thing I said to my dad was, "I love you." And the last thing he said to me was, "I love you too." I am profoundly grateful God let me be his son. I want to live up to his example.

Turning 50 is no big deal. It's kinda fun to joke about. I got my AARP card. Funny, I got one when I turned 20 for some reason, so I guess Darla's right that I've been kind of like a senior adult for 30 years now! Truth is, I feel great, I lost 35 pounds about two years ago and have kept it off, and I've been running since my dad's death. Someone said I looked frail. Frail?! Perhaps flabby or funny or fifty, but frail?! That's a first, and it kinda hurt a little. I haven't run in several months, so I decided it was time. Sadly, I didn't even own a pair of shorts I could run in! All I had were either too big or the elastic was worn out. My shoes are so out of style. My over-sized sweats hang off my body like I'm a kid wearing my father's sweat suit (actually it is a sweat suit my dad gave me). Running isn't very fun when you're out of shape. I'm past the soreness stage, now I'm just trying to increase mileage (I can run about two miles right now) and make it worth the effort. When I get to where I can run six miles, I might be able to eat about anything I want (that seriously motivates me)!
I remember not too long ago when 50 seemed so over-the-hill! I came to Providence as a 29-year-old and our oldest member was 50!! Wow. It doesn't feel that old to me. I just embrace it. I'm happy. I just pray that God will perhaps help me overcome some of my long-time hangups and struggles and favorite sins. I want to be more like him. I want to be useful to him. I'm not really wanting to live too long, however. My grandmother turned 100 in February, and I really don't think I want to live that long. And having watched my dad decline, I'd rather not die slowly from cancer. I think I'd like to go quickly, perhaps on my knees shouting "Jesus is Lord" as an Isis swordsman beheads me. That would be better. Until then, I just want to be faithful and consistent and ever-growing closer to Jesus.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Cookin' a Pig

It’s a whole hog barbecue and it’s called many different things across the USA: In some places it’s a hog roast, a pig pull, or a pig roast. The Cajuns call it “cochon de lait.” It’s called a pig pickin’ in the Carolinas and other parts of the deep South. It’s an echon asado in Puerto Rico where it’s the “national dish.” It’s famously practiced in Hawaii luaus where the “Kālua pig” is buried in the sand with hot coals, protected in banana tree leaves. Pretty much everywhere it’s done with a big group of people as a celebration. And although there are many ways to do it and lots of different styles of sauces and trimmings, it’s almost always good.

In Jefferson County, TN, where I grew up and learned the art, it is simply called, “cookin’ a pig.” We used to serve it over cornbread hoecakes, and eat it with a smoky and sweet tomato-based sauce (that’s got a little spicy kick). Usually slaw, baked beans, and corn-on-the-cob are served as sides. Some want buns to make a sandwich. My mouth is watering even now. It is simply one of the best ways families and groups can celebrate together or just enjoy each other’s fellowship.

From time-to-time, someone will ask me about whether Christians should be enjoying pork so much—let alone celebrating something church-related—when the Old Testament law forbids its consumption. I think a case can be made that it is the perfect food for a Christian celebration! We are not under the law but under grace. The people of God are no longer a closed group of Jews and Jewish proselytes (the circumcision). All that changed with Christ. He came to fulfill the law. All the ceremonial laws in the Old Testament pointed forward to him. Now the Good News is for “all nations” as he commissioned us. What’s more, remember Peter’s vision of a sheet let down from heaven with unclean animals that God told him to eat (Acts 10)? I’m pretty certain there was a pig in there! His vision symbolized that God had included the “unclean” gentiles in his plan and saves all those who believe. Why should we not keep this symbolism? When we eat pork, we are celebrating the fact that God has included us! Just as the pig was once considered unclean (like me), and even though the pig was previously a filthy, slop-eater; he can be an aromatic and delicious blessing to many through his own sacrifice!

Cooking the pig is not hard, but there are several ways things can go wrong. You must take care that the fat that runs off the pig does not catch on fire. That’s the worst thing that can happen. A burning pig will amaze all who witness it. It will destroy anything around it. Don’t let it happen. This means building a pit on a slight grade so that the fat will drain away, and not putting coals that are still flaming underneath. Keep a shovel and 5-gallon bucket of water or hose near the pit in case a flame gets going. The main reason someone must be responsible to be with the pig at all times is this. Also don’t cook the pig too fast. This is always the temptation. It warms up slowly. It cooks slowly. Don’t rush things. No matter how many times I say it, people always do.

Don’t run out of wood or let the feeder coal fire go out. That’s not good. It can allow the pig to drop in temperature. If you are about to run out of firewood, go to Wal-Mart and get a bunch of charcoal. The natural lump kind (rather than briquettes) is best, but either will work.

I think one of my favorite parts is the fellowship that is engendered, not just when eating the pig, but while cooking it. The way I cook a pig takes about 24 hours, and there’s not a whole lot of work to do, but it requires someone to be present the whole time. This means there’s a lot of sitting and talking that happens. It’s a great—perhaps even perfect—environment for men to get to know each other. We have a task, it takes some skill, and the whole time we’re enveloped in aromatic, smoky goodness. It’s also done under the stars and sky in an outdoor setting. I don’t know of another thing that brings guys together and opens them up like cooking a pig.

Here’s how it’s done:

1. Order a pig. It’s becoming more and more difficult to find pigs. I used to know several slaughter houses that would sell a whole hog to the public. Lately I’ve had to get them through Food City’s butcher who could get one for me. When ordering a pig, the slaughter-house (or meat processor, or grocery meat department or whoever you can find to provide it) should clean and scald the pig. A “scalded” pig still has it’s skin and is much better for several reasons, most of all so that it will not dry out as much while cooking. It also makes the pig easier to handle and makes the grease easier to manage. I like to have them leave the head on, along with all feet and the tail (it’s kinda fun, especially with the reactions you get from city-slickers). Good cooking pigs should weigh between 60 and150 pounds dressed. The bigger ones are harder to handle and cook. The amount of meat per person depends on the group. One pound of dressed pig per person is a good rule-of-thumb (a 100 lbs. pig feeds 100 people).

2. Rather than digging a pit, I prefer to build a temporary pit of concrete blocks two blocks high, five blocks long, and three blocks wide (32 blocks for one pig) on slightly sloping ground which helps the grease drain away. I’ve also built a pit out of bricks or rocks, so anything will work that are about the same size.

3. Make sure the floor under the grill is suitable to prevent fires from happening. To go all out, line the ground in the bottom of the pit with heavy duty foil (not regular thin foil), then place a few bricks on the foil, then lay a coarse screen (fine steel grate) on the bricks. Place the coals on the screen. This makes it very easy to control fires. I do not always use foil or a raised grate to put the coals on if I have a gravel spot on which to build the pit, which allows laying the coals on the ground in very small piles under each ham and shoulder, and sometimes the middle of the pig. The gravel disburses the fat well enough to control fires. Important: keep a shovel or water hose or bucket nearby to put out grease fires while they’re small.

4. Find a steel grate that can be laid on top of the blocks and is strong enough for a man to stand on. I like a 4’ x 8’ sheet of expanded steel grate. of Before cooking, spray the top of the grate with cooking oil. This will help with flipping the pig.

5. When the pig arrives, start a fire with dry, seasoned hickory wood. The purpose of this fire is to prepare hot coals to place under the pig to cook it. You must keep this fire going for 24 hours, which will take about a half cord of wood. If you don’t have hickory, any hardwood (except locust, sweet gum, sycamore, or poplar) will do, especially apple (or another fruit), pecan, walnut, or oak. Do not use evergreen or soft wood. And definitely do not use treated lumber. Not only will you ruin the taste, you could get sick.

6. Final pig prep: even a slaughtered and processed pig might need some additional preparation:

• Rip-out the kidneys and any veins, etc. that the pig will no longer need.

• Take a sharp single-bladed axe or hatchet and hammer to split the inside of the backbone so the pig will lay flat on the grate (this is called “butterfly” style). Open the pig up so he will lay-out like a flying squirrel. Do not cut or make any holes in the skin. It will cause problems later on.

• Open the mouth and insert an apple. It will take a real man to open it. It’s important because the pig will bite the apple when he is done (not really, but it’s fun to tell people that).

• Lay the pig belly-down on the grate. Feel free to put a Tennessee hat on it’s head and a Bama hat on it’s tail. It will cook much happier that way.

•The pig will be finished in 24 hours. So if you want to eat the pig at 5pm on a Saturday, pick the pig up (packed in ice, but not frozen!) and deliver it to the cooking site by at least 4pm on Friday. If you have all your supplies together and the pit built, you should be able to get the cooking started by 4:30 or 5:00pm on Friday.

7. Start cooking...SLOW.

• Build a fire to make coals to cook with. If at all possible use dry hickory firewood. Just campfire sized is good. After 30 minutes of burning, some red-hot coals should be available for use.

• Use a shovel to place 2 to 3 golf ball-sized coals (or equivalent in smaller or larger coals) under each ham and each shoulder, and if the pig weighs over 100 lbs., put some right in the middle. Do not put more coals on it than this. The key to cooking pigs is to START SLOW and don't get much faster. Just be persistent. It is a low-temperature, long-duration cooking process. The most common mistake rookies make is to cook too fast and ruin the pig. Be ready, because at this point you will start receiving verbal abuse from others about how the pig won't cook, it will be raw, any fool would know better, bla bla bla. Tell them that they don't have to eat any of it tomorrow, and stand firm.

•After starting the pig, continue cooking him by adding 2 or 3 more hot coals to the same four or five piles of coals underneath the pig about every 30 minutes until the pig is done. This is done by pulling out one of the concrete blocks and then replacing it when you’ve put in more coals. After placing the coals under the pig, always add wood to your coal-making fire. You don’t want to run out of cooking coals.

•You can leave the pig uncovered on the pit for viewing for five or six hours. Then you need to cover it. We cover the pig with one large piece of cardboard that does not touch the pig anywhere except the feet and ears. Sometimes we build brick “towers” around the waist of the pig to prevent touching. Over the cardboard place a tarp that will cover the whole pit. This rig works better than a $15,000.00 cooker. And the tarp will forever smell awesome.

8. The pig is to be turned over only once, about 16 hours from start time. To turn, scoot the pig over to one side on the grate and just flip him all at once (but watch out for breaking a well-cooked leg). After the pig is turned over, grease will drip, or even run at times, so one should not put the coals where the grease drips. (Actually it will begin dripping long before it's turned but the greatest danger of significant grease fires occurs after turning.) To reduce fire risk, you can place the coals more around the edges after turning if necessary. This will not hurt the cooking rate because the cardboard and tarp will be like an oven. I like to keep as much smoke as possible under the tarp with the pig.

9. When the pig is done (according to our previous scenario, around 5pm, and at this time the pig will bite the apple in two), move it (grate and all) to the food line on saw horses. Have two servers (pullers), on either side of the pig to help people get meat. The best thing to do if the pig is cooked properly is for these pullers to put on the rubber gloves (thicker gloves are better because the meat will be hot) and simply pull the meat off and pull it apart. Yes, it will be that tender. Be careful not to break the skin, or the grease will waterproof their boots for them.

10. Enjoy some of the best and most tender BBQ you’ve ever had!