Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Sparks Family Christmas Tree Adventure

We're may not be the Griswolds, but we're sometimes close...and proud of it! Today was a great day! But to be entirely truthful, it did not happen spontaneously as in years past. I had to start working on everyone a couple of weeks ago. Only Dara and I made this journey last time, so this time I was hoping to get more participation. Dara was a ready volunteer. I talked to Drew who said he would come home a day early for his Thanksgiving break. Two down. Now the tough sells: Duncan and Darla. Duncan actually (surprising to me) said yes when I told her Drew and Dara were going. That leaves Darla. I'm laughing right now as I write this. She's the practical realist. At first she scolded that the trip would cost too much money. Then she said, "I have no desire to drive 5 1/2 hours (round trip) to get a tree. Y'all just go without me." Then as it got closer and the forecast called for snow and cold, she said, "It's not smart to go up there in that weather!!" Finally, last night, after days of protesting, when she saw that I was determined to go (excited, actually) she decided to come too. She was a trooper! I could tell that she had decided in her heart that she was going to have fun today. Everyone else was happy, too, as we loaded up enough stuff for a week's trip, Sparky (our big old Chocolate Lab), Mo (our four-month-old Beagle puppy), and the five of us.

We started late this morning from Knoxville. It was 33 degrees with snow flurries. There was a wet dusting of snow on the ground. As we went east and north on I-40 and I-81, the flurries became heavier. As soon as we got to Damascus, VA, snow started sticking to the road. We passed a sign that said it was 16 degrees! Then as we drove up beside the Virginia Creeper Trail toward Whitetop, it started getting deeper and slicker, and the snow started really coming down. Not so good on the narrow, curvy, hilly roads! I flipped the switch to put the Wagoneer in four wheel drive, and Darla started getting really nervous while I started really having fun (this type of situation has repeated itself often during our relationship--as she reminded me). The kids were oblivious to any danger (I have taught them well) and we just kept going.

Finally, we got to our destination: a Christmas tree farm in Whitetop. We drove up the snow-covered, two-track gravel drive to a little house. I spoke with the old farmer (super-nice guy--he remembered me--it was snowing the last time I came, too!) who asked if I had a saw and told me, "Pick a good 'un!" By now the wind was blowing and it was like a blizzard (as you can see in the pictures)! The next 30 minutes ranks among the most fun of the year for me.

We drove not far up into the Frazier fir trees (there are many acres!), got out for some pictures, and started looking for that elusive, perfect tree. Unlike years past, this time there were many that would have fit the bill. We didn't have to go far. There was a beautiful tree on the edge near the barn that kept calling our names.

After finding "the one" (it didn't take long), I began to cut it down, with help from Drew. One of the downsides to having the dogs with us is that I didn't really have enough room to bring my chainsaw. So I did it the old-fashioned way: hand cut it with my bow saw. This required getting down on the snowy ground (read: soaked)! It wasn't easy. The branches of "the one" started at the ground leaving no room to work the saw.

The girls and the dogs went playing and running around in the snow and taking pictures. Sparky LOVES the snow and cold. Mo...not so much. He did at first, but he quickly retreated to Dara's feet and wanted to be held. He's the most cold-natured dog I've ever had! Darla kept wanting to go somewhere to buy a doggie-sweater for him to wear. She asked a clerk when we stopped for lunch at Cracker Barrel. Darla said the lady laughed like she was crazy. Funny, that's one place I would totally expect to see something like a dog sweater!

After the tree was cut, I drove the Wagoneer up closer and we strapped the tree to the roof.

Awesome. I was freezing--my jeans were soaked from the knees down from where I knelt to cut down the tree and they were now frozen stiff! But the whole thing was a blast.

Ok, I admit it. I am a total romantic about my Jeep Wagoneer. I've had it for almost a year and I haven't been sorry once. Of course, this all could change at any moment when the engine blows or the transmission quits. But as for now, it's still like a little vacation any time I'm behind the wheel. It's total nostalgia and sentimentalism. But you have to admit, this thing is made for days like today. Who cares if I spend $25 more for not driving Darla's Equinox?!

When I finally got back in the Wag, Darla handed me a cup of hot chocolate! She's awesome. We stopped by the farmer's house on the way out and I gave him $25 for the beautiful nine-foot tree.

Then we went to the Whitetop store and got boiled peanuts, Nehi Peach soda, and Red Rock ginger ale.

We stopped by Green Cove and Buchannon Inn to take some pictures and headed back toward home. What an awesome day! We sang carols, talked of Christmases past, and laughed a lot. Darla wasn't even as nervous on the snowy roads (or at least she pretended not to be).

Was the Sparks Christmas Tree Adventure a success? You bet! But it wasn't cheap. We ate out twice, and the Wagoneer's choke got stuck closed which caused it to burn an unreal amount of fuel. I gave it a temporary fix, but it is still thirstier than normal--and that's saying a lot! Yikes, we got about 8 mpg!! Not cool. I'll have to figure that out later. But wow, it was in its element in all that snow!

More than anything, I am aware of God's blessings this day before Thanksgiving. After we got home and unpacked, and got the tree in the stand, I headed to the store for a few things we need to cook the Turkey tomorrow. I was overwhelmed with gratitude to God. Almost to tears. I have a great family. There are not four other people in the world with whom I would rather share a day like today. I love them so much. Thank you Lord.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

A Good Day.

For the last three days I've been telling Darla, "Saturday was just a good day." It was nothing super interesting, but it was made special because Drew was home from Berry College in Georgia where he just spent most of the summer taking classes and working. We decided to load up the Wagoneer and go to Cocke County.
It was afternoon and we hadn't eaten lunch, so our first stop was Carver's orchard in Cosby. We ate at the family-owned restaurant, and shopped in the produce barn. It's a great place. We got peach cider, apple cider, a half-bushel of big, juicy, South Carolina peaches, apple butter, and some other tasty stuff.

 This is a spring-fed pond below Max Patch mountain. Clear, cold water. There was an older couple fishing for trout. Max Patch is a mountain on the border of Tennessee and North Carolina accessible from the Harmon Den exit off I-40. Just take a left at the end of the exit and go. The pavement quickly ends. Just follow the signs all the way up. In the winter it will snow on Max Patch when hardly anywhere else gets snow. You better have four-wheel-drive when conditions are bad! The curvy road can be challenging. We take our time and enjoy the view. Don't expect bathrooms or any kind of amenities. Hardly anyone is up there, and there are definitely no stores or gas stations. Just like we like it!

 Here we are on top of Max Patch. The only other people up there were a young couple that took this picture. They had just become engaged! We took their picture and they took ours. She was still teary-eyed. The Appalachian Trail crosses over the top of this wonderful bald. That's Tennessee behind us to the west.

 Darla, Sparky, and Drew walking in front of me and the girls on Max Patch. It's crazy that it's the middle of August and we needed jackets--it was cold! Darla even wore my Mountain Hardwear toboggan! What a beautiful place. We've been coming up here since the kids were tiny. Every season is beautiful. Sledding in winter, colors in fall, flowers in spring and cool, breezy, green beauty in summer. Duncan talked about wanting to have her wedding up there.

This is after the hike before we headed home. The hike is not bad at all (Dara and I wore Chacos), but you wouldn't know by looking at Sparky. He's so out of shape.

The Wag was flawless, by the way. It's more eager than the family truckster on Sparks adventures--and thirstier, too! I got a whopping 13.4 mpg! But (in my opinion) the gas mileage is well worth the old-school, silky-smooth ride and torquey v-8. Oh...and we love all those people who give the thumbs-up or ask about it!! My kids laugh when people will take pictures of the G-Wag. Crazy!

A day like today when all five of us can be together is becoming rarer. Taking a break from everyone's busy schedule was a good call. It's something we need more of.

And the icing on the cake? We stopped in my hometown of Jefferson City on the way home and met my dad at the legendary Hoagie Shop Deli for supper. A good day indeed.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Miserable Ones (Les Miserables)

What a great Sunday! We got creative, covered Father's Day, AND grappled with Romans 5! I love our church so much. If you weren't able to come, you missed (as John called it) "movie day." I broke all the rules I learned in preaching class. I started by simply reading the passage (with a few clarifying comments):
Romans 5:6-11 ESV
6For while we were still weak (some trans: “powerless, without strength, helpless”), at the right time Christ died for the ungodly (the unworthy, undesirable, the miserable ones). 7For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— 8but God shows (or “God has demonstrated”) his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
9Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. 10For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.

11More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.
After some introductory remarks, I turned it over to John Barber who walked us through the old classic story and recent motion picture, Les Miserables. We saw how human art (vis. this story) reflects the ancient story of God's grace, and how this one encapsulates Romans 5.

I love our church.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Father's Day

I think I'm looking forward to Father's Day more than ever. Maybe it's because it's the last one before my kids start going to college. Maybe it's because it's the first one since learning my dad has terminal cancer. It could be because I'm really tired and I'm ready for a break (we usually go camping for a week after Father's Day)! While all those reasons certainly contribute, I actually think it's because I'm looking forward to church on Father's Day! I don't mean to shock, but this is unusual! Ask any pastor and if he's honest he'll tell you the secular holidays are some of the most difficult for which to prepare. In truth, most pastors dread preaching on those days--especially the ones that fall on a Sunday. Here are the choices: preach from the Bible and ignore what's on everyone's mind (in this case you'd better keep it short!), do the gratuitous special holiday thematic sermon (shmeh--they all seem to sound the same to me), or scrap everything conventional and do something totally creative and outside-the-box different.

I'm fired up about church on Father's Day this year because the sermon (hint: it's not really a sermon) is going to be all three!!

I'm telling you: this year is going to be one to remember. And it won't be the same if you try to catch it on MP3 later.

If you don't go to church, I invite you to Providence tomorrow (for times and directions, visit Bring your dad or a man you know. You (and he) will not be sorry!

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

A Happy Presidents Day

What a great day! We piled in the Wagoneer (the whole family, Duncan's friend Josie, and Sparky the dog) and headed to Rhea County and hiked to Stinging Fork Falls. On the way we stopped by downtown Rockwood and ate a fantastic country meal at the Rockwood Street Grille (which included fried green tomatoes, soup beans and cornbread, greens, fried fish, grilled chicken; Drew had a big sloppy chili burger...mmmm)! After eating, we explored several antique stores there. 
Then we drove to Spring City, then took the scenic route to the trailhead. We took some pics along the way and made it to the falls. Beautiful!  The water is a deep jade blue color. The many icicles along the trail make things even more interesting.

The falls is bigger than it looks in the picture. Observe the kids to the right!

On the way home we stopped back by Rockwood again and got ice cream and shakes at an old-fashioned drugstore. Drew bought an old wooden trunk, a book, and some other stuff. All the kids want to move there! A simple, great day.

Oh, and the Wagoneer did great!! I filled up the next day and got 15 mpg!!! That's not too bad considering the mixture of highway and city driving, the hills we climbed, the 6 people + 1 dog in the car, and the fact that I've got some carburator work to do! I might be able to get 17-19 hwy. if I get everything tuned.
From the overlook at Stinging Fork gorge.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Brave the Blizzard. Ready for Romans.

Everybody knows that a little snow in East Tennessee gives everyone the notion to hunker down in their homes--especially when it's Super Bowl Sunday! But if you're a part of the Providence family, you don't want to miss the beginning of something this important. Come tomorrow and see what I mean.

Check out this short video:

The Journey 2012 was awesome. In fact, I've been excited about every series we've done. But I'm convinced that Romans has the potential to be the most impactful series ever.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

A Wagoneer?!

Yep. I bought one. I know. Let me explain.

This isn't mine. But it's virtually identical. I'll have to take
some pictures of my G-Wag later.
Between Thanksgiving and Christmas I saw it outside an auto repair shop on Western Avenue: A dark maroon 1989 Jeep Grand Wagoneer. I’ve liked them for as long as I can remember. A friend’s family had one in the mid 1970s. They sometimes gave me a ride home from swim practice in it. Another friend’s family had one that I rode in on a church trip in 1978. I saw Wags everywhere in New Hampshire and Maine when I went on vacation there in 1980. Then something happened that made an indelible impression.

My college roommate and I both played football, but we really just wanted to hunt and fish. His uncle (an avid fly fisherman and bird hunter) invited us to go grouse hunting with him. My roommate and I drove to his cabin near New Tazwell. He had two cars: a Porsche 911 and a fairly new Jeep Grand Wagoneer. So cool! We tied flies (it’s a trout fishing thing) until late, woke up in the morning and loaded the Wag. You’ve got to understand, even in 1988, the Wagoneer was a relic of days gone by. Conceived in the late 50s, the basic design had not changed since its debut in 1963. It was like an old-school station wagon—woodgrain sides and all—only it had four-wheel-drive and the masculine face of a truck. If you weren’t around in the 80s, you must know that small cars like the VW Rabbit and Honda Prelude were the trend. Even the trucks were smaller and their weakened engines were choked with CAFE-mandated catalytic converters and smog equipment. So we loaded the guns and Pointers (bird dogs) in the custom-caged back and hit the road. I was surprised at how well it rode and the comfort of the leather-couch seats, yet the big, smooth AMC V-8 engine sounded like a muscle car and effortlessly pulled up steep hills. When the road ended it crawled up the side of Clinch Mountain without spinning a tire. That was when I thought, “I want one of these.”

I met Darla that year, and a year-and-a-half later I graduated and we were married. Every car decision we’ve made since has been, well, practical. Reliability, reasonable gas mileage, affordability, and adequate space for our growing family have been the determining factors. That is until a couple of weeks ago.

So in the weeks preceding Christmas, that ‘89 Wagoneer on Western was whispering my name. I thought, “I wonder if it’s for sale.” It was. Weeks went by. “I need that like a hole in the head!” I said to myself whenever I drove by. Then I inched closer: I stopped just to look in the window. “It must be rough on the inside or have rust.” Nope. It was in excellent shape inside and out! Weeks went by. “They must be asking too much for it.” I looked online to see what similar Wags were selling for. They were hard to find. Most available ones are trashed. But good ones were going for 7k to 9k. Some really nice or restored ones were going for 40k! A guy in California is restoring them better-than-new with all the modern conveniences and fancy engines for 130k+!!!

Then I did it. I went inside the place and asked how much they were wanting for it. I don’t want to divulge details, but let’s just say I was surprised...pleasantly! “Something must be wrong with it or someone doesn’t know what these things are worth.” It seemed too good to be true. Turns out the guy who owns the shop (a really good guy) was selling it for his friend who he said took meticulous care of it. So I drove it. I got my buddy Brett (a real car guru) to check it out with me. I asked a mechanic friend to check it out, too. Everyone was saying, “Looks good to me.”

Meanwhile, I drove Darla insane. Over Christmas and New Year’s I couldn’t get my mind off it. “It would be so cool...Drew and I can work on it...I can always sell it if we need the money...I don’t really have a hobby...It would be cheaper to keep it running than to buy a new car...” Much to my surprise, she said, “Why don’t you just buy it.” [It was like that moment in Rocky II when Adrian awoke in the hospital and said, “Win.” Bonggggggggggggggg.] I made an (even lower) offer. Yikes! A woman had just offered full asking price for it. She didn’t come through. The Wag was mine.

“What have I done?” I thought as I drove away. A couple of days later I got gas (it’s pretty thirsty!). A guy at the next pump who saw the temporary tag in the window asked, “Did you just buy that?” “Yep,” I said not knowing whether to feel proud or embarrassed. “How much did you pay?” I laughed, “I’m not telling you that!” He replied, “Would you be interested in selling it? I’ve been looking for one of those.” I wasn’t. Perhaps I should have at least seen what he would pay! Crazy!!!

Again, not mine. This one's a tad lighter maroon and has
white wall tires. Awesome!
Was that confirmation that I had made a good deal? Or was God showing me mercy—giving an opportunity to get my money back before it was too late? I don’t know. What I do know is there are lots of little things to fix: rattles, the radio, a finicky dash light, the power seats and door locks... But it is soooo fun to drive! Taking it to the office is like a 15-minute vacation—or like a time machine back to a simpler day. For some crazy reason, I LOVE driving it.

I know. Most who read this still don’t understand. And I’m not sure I do either. 

Friday, January 4, 2013


I’m gearing up for Romans!

So far, I’ve amassed 16 commentaries and 8 sets of study notes for Romans. Some of these include works by Swindoll, Sproul, Stott, MacArthur, McGee, Moo, Carroll, Luther, Constable, and E.F. Harrison, to name a few. Tony (Providence Jeff. City campus pastor) and BP have got a few more that I will be able to share as well!  Online commentaries are a great resource, too. There I will likely tap into works by divines like Calvin, Wesley, Charles Hodge, and Schaff among others. Even early church guys like Chrysostom, Thomas Aquinas, and Augustine have commentaries on Romans that are available online! Awesome.
Sketch of Luther translating the
NT into German in Wartburg Castle

I’m also dusting off my Greek resources and tools. My desk is a heap! A big, beautiful heap. I just want to be kidnapped and confined in Wartburg Castle (that’s a Luther reference) with my Bibles & books so that I can marinate alone in all the truth! Yikes!...I’m shaking my head trying to wake up from the preacher-nerd trance. This is the kind of studying that I love most.

The actual desk where Luther worked.
Ahhhh... Romans. I’ve been scared and intimidated, but since going public that we’re going to do it, I’m becoming more and more excited. While I was in seminary John MacArthur came to speak and was asked during a Q&A about preaching through Romans. He quipped that a pastor should not attempt such a feat until he is at least 45 years old! It occurred to me last year when I was sensing God’s pleasure regarding us doing Romans that...that’s my age. Coincidence?
Wartburg Castle today
(and yes, that's where Wartburg,
Tennessee got its name)

Seriously, here’s the danger that many pastors fail to avoid: getting too caught up in delicious theological detail. Romans is to expositors what the Great Smokies are to botanists: a rich garden of interesting discoveries waiting to be found. I’ve been surveying how other pastors have led their congregations through Paul’s great letter. Most of them focused on doctrine and quoted lots of old theologians (see my list of commentators above!) and bored their people to death! What a shame!!! In the words of Young Life founder Jim Rayburn, “It is a sin to bore kids with the Gospel.” I would say it is also sinful to bore adults with the Gospel. And that’s what Romans is essentially about: The Good News—why we need it, how we get it, who makes it happen, and what happens to the lives of those who find it. Is it practical? Oh yes...yes it is.

And it offers our church many great opportunities to invite friends. Something that makes Providence different is our dogged commitment to creating an environment where new folks will feel at home. We do this in order to remove barriers so that people can hear the Good News. We’re going to work extra to make sure this is the case during Romans. Providence folks: build relationships and bring your friends. We’ll do our job. You do yours!

And God will do his.