Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Stay-cation at Grayson Highlands

As I wrote in the previous post, we went on a little trip to SW Virginia/NW Tennessee. It was a great time. Here are some more pictures and comments from our day hanging out at Grayson Highlands:
Yes! We needed the warm clothes. It was chilly there! We've learned that it's always cooler at Grayson Highlands than anywhere else.

Drew climbing up some nameless peak. 
I'm sure this peak has a name, but I don't know it. Yes, the clouds were beautiful! They were whipping by, too. We would get a few moments of sunshine followed by a few of cloud cover.

Happy Drew. Sitting with Sparky, looking toward Mt. Rogers. 

Happy Chad. Yes, I needed the jacket! The wind was kicking! When the sun was behind the clouds it was downright cold! Mo's on the leash because I didn't want him falling off the cliff.

Duncan resting on Sparky in a grassy wind break. Awesome spot!

Drew and Sparky finding a grassy windbreak in the cleft of a rock. 

Duncan made it to the top with Sparky.

Picking blueberries. This is truly one of God's great gifts.  
Blueberry were everywhere! Delicious, tart, and bursting with juice. Mmmm! I couldn't get enough. I could easily live a week playing Survivorman up there.

Sparky and Mo want blueberries too!

Beagle heaven! Too many rabbits to track! And deer... and ponies... and squirrels... and groundhogs... Mo exhausted himself!

Here's me trying to keep up with Mo. 

It's the simple days like this that are great. I want more of them! They also remind us of God's glory.

David sang (Psalm 72:18-19),

 Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel,
   who alone does wondrous things.
 Blessed be his glorious name forever;
   may the whole earth be filled with his glory!
 Amen and Amen!

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

To The Easternmost "Tip" of Tennessee

Tennessee is, generally speaking, shaped like a long parallelogram. Of course, a closer look reveals a much different and irregular shape.
Many people think the northeastern tip of Tennessee is a tri-state border with Virginia and North Carolina. There is a tri-state point, but that is not the northeasternmost point. Like a puzzle piece that seems to not quite fit, it strangely protrudes away from the NC line a bit. A few miles, in fact.

This northeasternmost point of the state has been a curiosity of mine since I was a kid. I've known for years that this oddly shaped tip of the state was located near the Virginia Creeper bike trail, but I've never determined to find it. That is until today.

Our family (minus Dara, who was invited by her friend to go to the beach) took advantage of a couple of days when Drew was home from Berry College and before Duncan must begin at Carson-Newman, to take a stay-cation. So we hurriedly packed the Wagoneer and hooked up the pop-up and headed to Bear Tree campground near Damascus, VA.

It is one of our favorite places. After the first night, we ate a big breakfast and spent the day at Grayson Highlands (awesome) eating our fill of wild blueberries (everywhere and delicious), apples, blackberries, and lying around the rocky peaks and grassy fields watching the clouds blow by.

Sparky and Mo (our ten-year-old Chocolate Lab and one-year-old Beagle, respectively) had the time of their lives (Sparky relaxing and Mo running free)!

On the 28th of July, it was around 58 degrees! With the wind blowing, you really needed a fleece or a warm jacket.

On the way back we stopped at a couple of places to let Drew collect some wild Beebalm to make tea.
We went to Damascus for dinner and discussed what we would do on Tuesday. That's when I sprung it on them: "Let's go find the easternmost tip of Tennessee. It's really close to the Creeper trail near Green Cove." No enthusiastic response. It seems that I was the only one who appreciated the novelty of finding the spot. No one had a better idea about what to do so I brought it up again. This time I got questions:
"How do you know how to get there?"
Me: "My topo map shows the place and I have a compass. I even have satellite photos on my phone."
"Is there a trail?"
Me: "I don't know. I don't think so."
"How far down the Creeper from Green Cove do we have to go?"
Me: "It's UP the Creeper, and it looks like about a mile."
"Up?! That will be hard."
Me: "The Creeper isn't steep. We can do it, no problem."
"What will we do with the dogs?"
Me: "We'll take them with us."
"Mo will run in front of the bikes and cause a wreck, and Sparky can't run that fast."
Me: "I'll take care of Mo on a leash, and Drew can get Sparky. We won't go fast. It's just a mile."
Truth is, I was feeling the pressure. This crazy idea had better work.

We got up the next morning, ate breakfast, and headed to Green Cove. A beautiful day. The dogs did fine. Drew ended up giving up Sparky since his bike wasn't working well. Mo pulled me up the trail like a sled dog. He couldn't go fast enough! I was laughing the whole way. We got to the place where I had figured was closest to the point and parked the bikes. Darla wasn't happy when I started up the hill in the thick woods and crossed a barbed-wire fence. "There's no trail! This is crazy!" She almost didn't go. We walked through some pretty thick stuff, including spider webs and brush, all the while keeping an eye on the compass.

I'm standing on the very tip of Tennessee looking west-southwest.
Virginia's border follows the fence lines on either side. Beyond the
fences are thick woods dominated by laurels & hardwood trees.
Drew saw what appeared to be a clearing in the otherwise thick woods. About 30 feet from "the point" there were some stout barbed-wire fences that the girls decided not to cross. Drew and I did, and (imagine the sound of angels' voices from heaven) there it was! It is an unceremonious spot, really. There is no sign. What once was a marker has been broken. But looking west into Tennessee is a beautiful view. I took in the moment. Thomas Jefferson's father was the first to mark this very spot. Since he did, there have probably not been that many more who have stood there. But now we had.

Here is what's left of a border marker that's buried deep in the
ground, inches from the very point of Tennessee. You can see
what's left of a hole that was once carved in this old stone that
perhaps contained a signpost of some sort.
I'm sure there is some spiritual analogy here, but I've not found one. It was just cool. I'll try to add some more pictures later. A great day.

I just wish Dara could have been here with us. I bet she would have appreciated it. Guess I'll just have to bring her back!

Oh, and I want to find the other three corners of Tennessee now, too.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

He Restores My Soul

Another feeble attempt at poetry. Don't make fun! I'm just trying to exercise the right (read: creative) side of my brain, and express my heart as well. I've been dwelling on Psalm 23:3 this week. It's rich.

He Restores My Soul
by Chad Sparks

My soul, you need restoring!
My life is dry, forlorn. 
The thought of mere enduring
A dreadful, painful thorn.

The “re-” in restoration
Says something once was fresh,
Alive with foliation;
A vibrant, healthy flesh.

But now my leaves have fallen,
My skin is pale and cracked.
My sin like ragweed pollen
Has now my soul ransacked.

Do I possess the power
To change this weary soul;
Rise up like Babel’s tower
And wrest from God control?

No! I stand as helpless.
Frustration is my cell.
Useless, conquered, feckless,
Condemned to earth-bound hell.

Regardless of my straining,
No matter how I try,
There waits beyond my feigning
A higher Rock than I.

He is Righteous Creator!
How can he love this traitor?
I’m indefensible.

His Grace is my salvation
Oh how I love him so!
Beyond justification
He now restores my soul!

By grace I was forgiven;
New birth from spirit death.
By grace I am now given
New thirst, new strength, new breath!

My Shepherd is my rescue!
He stands me on my feet
So I can eat green fescue
And find delight replete!

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Twenty Three

Twenty Three
By Chad Sparks 

A word that’s like no other
We know not how to speak it;
The Word and Wholly Other
All else lies far beneath it.

Protector, guide, provider
I feel your presence near me,
No arms are open wider
To love and hold and heal me.

My wants in you assuaged
All others left me longing,
Thirsty, empty, enraged
Before to you belonging.

From you my needs extinguished,
You give me rest sublime. 
Restorer of souls distinguished
From others of all time.

You map and know the way
To holiness and pleasure
Which are the same you say.
Your glory is the measure.

When the trail of life grows dark
Your presence gives me cheer;
You are my strong bulwark,
I have no use for fear.

You feed me while foes hunger.
You make me shine with health.
My heart feels pleasant languor
As one who earned great wealth. 

And what now of the morrow? 
As long as earth I roam
His grace and good will follow.
‘Til his house is my home.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Attempting Poetry

Poetry? You’re kidding, right?

I’m really wanting to exercise the right side of my brain. For some reason poetry has become meaningful to me in recent years. I know, it’s probably more proof that I’m getting old. I mean, who reads poetry? Certainly not many people in my circles…that I know of. There are always those English majors around who say they do. I sometimes wonder if they really do…as in regularly read poetry. Kind of like the pastors I know who say they pray a lot. I hope they pray as much as they say they pray (but that’s another subject). I have found an interest in the writings of poets long dead, vis. Frost, Kipling, Wordsworth, Cowper, Burns, Dickinson, Longfellow, Milton, Tennyson, Emerson, and others. This interest was piqued when my son, Drew, a lover of old books, bought some volumes on poetry. I admit I sneaked into his room and read from them. I also have noticed that many old hymns were first poems (before later being set to music). Inspiring and beautiful! Where have these works of art been? Why have I not read them before?

Poetry seems to be a dying art. I have wondered why. There was a time—most of human history in fact—when poetry was ubiquitous. Books, magazines, newspapers; all printed some verse. Most sermons of generations past included poetry. Is it the changing of communication media? Is it that we are too busy and distracted with other more- and less-worthy pursuits? Is it, as some friends of mine have suggested, that people aren’t as smart as they used to be? None of those answers satisfy my curiosity.

Granted, poetry is not entirely forgotten. There are small societies for poets and poetry among the literary sort. And hip-hop (i.e. rap), a wildly popular form of music, is indeed lyrical poetry with meter and rhyme. But why are we no longer encouraged to write poems? Why don’t we read them as previous generations did? Do you know of someone, anyone, who makes their living by writing poetry (a.k.a. a poet)? I don’t.

I must confess, until recently, I’ve never really been into poetry. I liked the poetry in the Bible (of course it is translated into English, losing much of its original grammatical impact), and pithy sayings and quotes my parents and grandparents recited were pleasant. I grew up reading poems for children: from Dr. Seuss to Mother Goose. But in school I became intimidated by poetry. Shakespeare, and other ancient forms, were toilsome for me. Teachers seemed to make poetry aloof. Some focused on rules and gave assignments to write accordingly. It lost it’s fun. Others (later) discouraged all guidelines, and advocated more variety and complexity, reflecting our changing culture. Poetry seemed darker, more political, nuanced, existential and relative. These more recent (read: 20th century) varieties seemed odd to me. There was little or no meter or rhyme, and I couldn’t tell the difference between good poetry and bad. Can anyone? And because multiple meanings could be inferred, no one could know what the poet really meant—if anything at all! Poetry became in a sense, complex and unstructured. Cold, hard rules were overthrown by verbal anarchism. Yuck and yuck. In my mind, poetry was relegated to the territory of academicians and elitists. Simple minds (like mine) had a hard time understanding—much less appreciating it. Several weeks ago I was in a bookstore that happened to be hosting an "Original Poetry Reading." Thrilled, I conspicuously (not easy, only five or six others were listening) slipped in a seat and listened to a couple of rather lengthy poems. I must admit...I didn't get it. The first one had some interesting word-play, but made no sense to me whatever (the last one I endured was full of profanity and sexual innuendo—no thanks!). I left asking myself, "Am I so dull?" Maybe so. "Is this what Poetry really is?"

Perhaps my experience is not isolated. Could this be a (perhaps even the) reason for poetry’s waning? In The Virginia Quarterly Review, Christopher Clausen, in his essay, “The Decline of Anglo-American Poetry,” recognizes poetry’s loss of audience during the 20th century, and offers some interesting observations that confirm my own experience:

…Poetry became paradoxically more difficult to read, and the familiar series of phenomena began: the decline in the number of original books of poetry published from year to year, the disappearance of poetry as a major cultural force, the virtual extinction of the self-supporting poet…at almost precisely the time when the traditionally realistic novel was seeking other, often more traditionally poetic modes of expression. It is even more ironic that in the process of becoming less narrowly selective in its subjects and adopting free verse and a closer approximation of everyday language as its most conspicuous formal characteristics, poetry should have become less rather than more accessible to the common reader. (Find this excellent essay here:

Indeed, whenever a 20th century poet did arise who actually captured an audience, the critics (read: elitist academics) crowed and scoffed until the poor soul was ridden out on the proverbial rail. Rod McKuen serves as an example. In the 1950s and 60s he was arguably the best-known poet in the world, having a mainstream, populist appeal. Highbrows, however, spewed incessant indignation for his works. Writer and literary critic Nora Ephron said of McKuen, “[F]or the most part, McKuen's poems are superficial and platitudinous and frequently silly.” Pulitzer Prize-winning US Poet Laureate Karl Shapiro said, “It is irrelevant to speak of McKuen as a poet.” (Nora Ephron, “Wallflower at the Orgy.”) This kind of abuse, despite his popularity, drove him to despondency and clinical depression. My thought? What’s wrong with sentimentalism and populism if that’s what people want? It seems somewhat better than erudite, sophisticated poetry (or mindless babble cloaked as such) that no one reads! I’m no fan of sentimental country music (for example), but I appreciate it’s appeal. And I certainly don’t wish for its demise! Some of the more sincere, patriotic, philanthropic, and likable celebrities are country music stars. Why can’t we view poetry with the same tolerance as we do music? As with many things elitist, though they feign tolerance, in reality they are not tolerant at all.

So, I think I’m going to try my hand at some poetry. I want to free myself a bit! As Emily Dickinson wrote: 
They shut me up in Prose –
As when a little Girl
They put me in the Closet –
Because they liked me “still” –
Still! Could themself have peeped –
And seen my Brain – go round –
They might as wise have lodged a Bird
For Treason – in the Pound –

Well, maybe I’m not that eager to write poetry. I know I may fall flat on my face, but not trying is no fun. I encourage you to try it too! If we don’t we may regret it. As John Greenleaf Wittier wrote (in his wonderful poem, "Maud Muller") 
For all sad words of tongue and pen, 
The saddest are these: "It might have been!"
I think one important thing about art (like poetry) is the opportunity it provides us to be image-bearers of God and create. It satisfies the soul into which God breathed the breath of life to create something unique, beautiful, meaningful, emotional, spiritual, and personal. There is a sense of satisfaction we experience whenever we are more like our God who is supremely satisfied in himself. This is true regarding holiness, and being incarnational, and serving others. And it is true regarding creating art. Because in all these things we are bringing God glory.