kickoff!

The past few years, we’ve had our kickoff event for the American Cancer Society Relay For Life of Bedford County in the fall. And it’s been poorly attended. We were going to have one this past fall, but a combination of factors forced us to postpone it until Jan. 31 – but that seems to have been a good thing. The number of RSVPs on the event’s Facebook page is already quite a bit higher than our normal attendance, and I’m sure there are people planning on coming who haven’t bothered to click the button.

But there’s still room for you! Whether or not you’re familiar with Relay, this is a great chance to stop by and have a good time. We will have a hot chocolate bar, and cookies, and kid-friendly games and activities. It will be more of a party than a presentation, although we will, of course, have information available about Relay.

Relay For Life is the American Cancer Society’s grass-roots fundraising program. The focus of that program in each community is an actual overnight event. Ours will be held June 5-6 at Bedford County Agriculture and Education Center. Relay For Life is not a run or a race. The event is held around some sort of oval track (often at a high school stadium, although ours is on a horse show track). Various teams of walkers stay on the track for the duration of the event – in Bedford County’s case, that’s 12 hours, from 6 p.m. Friday to 6 a.m. Saturday. Each team must have at least one person walking at any given time during the event; that’s what makes it a relay, because team members take turns walking for their team.

The walking is only part of what goes on Relay night. It’s as much a festival as it is a walk. Each team typically operates some sort of concession – food, souvenirs, children’s games or activities or what have you. There are also ceremonies and observances, such as the Survivor Lap which opens the event by honoring cancer survivors, or the Luminaria Ceremony which takes place some time after dark. We encourage the general public, not just team members, to attend.

Teams raise money with their Relay-night concessions, but they also raise money in advance, with group fund-raisers and individual fund-raising by members.

Relay teams can be workplace-based, church-based, neighborhood-based or just a circle of friends. Sometimes, a Relay team is formed in tribute to a cancer patient or in memory of someone we’ve lost to cancer.

If you’re here in Bedford County, go to http://relayforlife.org/bedfordtn for more information. Otherwise, go to http://relayforlife.org and search for the Relay event in your area.

And please think about joining us, 2-4 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 31, at Bedford County Agriculture and Education Center.

join me on the mountain

A few years ago, I started writing a post about Mountain T.O.P.’s Adults In Ministry (AIM) program and it turned into a series of posts. Since then, when I’ve encouraged people to go to AIM, I’ve just linked to those posts.

But that series – and I’m still proud of it – was kind of, well, wordy. Once you start me talking, or writing, about AIM, it’s sort of hard to get me to shut up.

So here, just for the sake of doing it, is a shorter version.

Mountain T.O.P. (Tennessee Outreach Project), a ministry which I served for a total of 12 (non-consecutive) years as a board member, celebrates its 40th anniversary in 2015. Mountain T.O.P. was founded by a United Methodist church, and because of that it has some administrative ties to the United Methodist Church, but it’s completely interdenominational in its program, and has drawn volunteers from a variety of different denominational background ever since the first camp in 1975. Mountain T.O.P. is best known for a program that takes church youth groups as volunteers, but I got involved through AIM. It’s a passion for me. I’ve been pretty much every year since 1993 except for a few years in the 2000s when the dates of my foreign mission trips conflicted with the program.

A short-term mission trip is different from the work you do in your local church and community. The two aren’t in competition with one another; each can enhance the other. Jesus told the disciples they would be his witnesses in “Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” It’s good to explore different cultures and different types of need. It’s also good to get away and live in Christian community in a way that differs from what we’re able to do in the workaday world.

AIM operates in Grundy County, on the Cumberland Plateau, which has both unique assets and challenges, including economic struggles that go back for generations.

AIM has both week-long events during the summer and weekend events during the fall, but I’m going to talk about the former because it’s the nearest and dearest to my heart, and because I think the level of community and friendship you find in the week-long event is a different thing from what you can find in a weekend.

There will be three week-long camps this summer. At each of the three camps, each individual visitor has a choice between two different forms of service. One of them is always home repair, and the other one has to do with helping children and youth from the remote mountain communities. Here, in a nutshell, are the programs:

Major Home Repair (all 3 weeks)

Teams of about six people go and do home repair work for a deserving Grundy County family. The projects run the gamut. This program is open to, and commonly includes, men and women of every skill level. Whether you’re a professional contractor or have never picked up a hammer, you will be welcome and needed. The teams are put together on Sunday of a camp week in such a way that each team contains a balance of gender, age and experience level. You may find yourself learning new skills of which you wouldn’t have thought yourself capable.

The home repair projects are ongoing – other volunteers have worked on them before your team, and still other volunteers will take up wherever you left off.

Summer Plus (June 21-27)

This is what first attracted me to AIM, and it’s the program I’ve done most often. Volunteers conduct enrichment workshops for teenagers from the mountain. You can volunteer to teach, and even suggest a subject, or you can just work in a support role. We pick up the teenagers each morning and drop them off each afternoon. Teens take one workshop before lunch and a different workshop after lunch. Past workshops have included cooking, tennis, creative writing, drama, photography, juggling, Pinterest-inspired crafts, self-defense, basic car care, and on and on. If you can teach a few basic skills over an 8-hour period ( ~2 hours a day Monday through Thursday, with a much briefer wrapup session and a presentation for the parents on Friday), it’s fair game for a Summer Plus workshop.

Kaleidoscope (June 7-13)

Similar in format to Summer Plus, but focused on the arts and meant to serve elementary-age special needs children. “Special needs” is broadly defined and can include anything from disabilities to ADHD to a crappy home situation. As with Summer Plus, we need both people willing to teach and people working to support the program. In Kaleidoscope, the kids take the same workshop every morning but they rotate through workshops in the afternoon, so if you were a teacher you would need to develop two different lesson plans – a four-day plan for your primary group in the mornings, and a single-day plan which you would give four different times, to four different groups of kids, in the afternoon.

My ideal summer is to get to go to AIM twice, so that I can do both Summer Plus and Kaleidoscope. I’ve done that several times in the past, although I won’t get to do it that way this year.

Quest (July 5-11)

This is the newest of the four programs, and the only one in which I’ve never participated. Like Summer Plus, this serves teens from the mountain – but it’s focused on adventure activities like rappelling, rafting and a ropes course. Adult volunteers work in a support role. Adults are free to participate alongside the kids but are also free to skip any individual activity that they don’t feel comfortable doing.

Camp community at AIM

AIM events are held at Cumberland Pines, Mountain T.O.P.’s base of operations between Altamont and Coalmont in Grundy County. Adults stay, two to a room, in Bradford Cabin (formerly known as Friends Cabin), which was specifically built for the adult ministry and has amenities like air conditioning.

The camp community has a morning devotion and breakfast before heading out their separate ways – home repair teams to their sites, and the volunteers for that week’s youth program to pick up kids and bring them back to camp.

In the evening, we come back together for dinner, and then have sharing (a time to talk about the day’s experiences) and a brief, colorful and participatory time of worship.

The sense of Christian community that forms through a week in camp has led to some special friendships which I’ve treasured and maintained for years.

To mark the ministry’s 40th anniversary, AIM is shooting for attendance of 40 for each of the three camp weeks. I would dearly love to be able to introduce some friends to this ministry, which has meant so much to me over the past 22 years. If you’re at all interested, please either contact me or go to http://mountain-top.org/adults-in-ministry-aim.

Laissez les bons temps rouler

At Kroger yesterday, I saw andouille. That’s unusual – I have seen a couple of national smoked sausage brands that tried to promote “andouille-style” or “Cajun-style” flavors in the past, but they weren’t true andouille, and you could see that as soon as you sliced into the link. Actual andouille, at least the kind with which I’m familiar, has a grain to it – speckled, with little bits of fat and meat. I’m sure there’s a term for it that I should be using. A cross-section of the “andouille-style” smoked sausage I’d seen in the past looked just like regular smoked sausage – a uniform pink color, with no bits of anything.

ragincajunBut this was labeled as andouille. It was from Georgia, not Louisiana, but I figured it was worth a try.

A few days earlier, I’d bought a slightly-punctured bag of brown rice, which I love, for only 99 cents out of the bargain bin at Kroger. I decided to try to make a jambalaya with brown rice. Traditional? Probably not. But I like brown rice, and it’s much better for me.

I sliced into the andouille and it looked pretty much like the actual Louisiana andouille I’d tried in the past.

This was a seat-of-my-pants preparation. I chopped up onion and bell pepper, sauteed them, then added a little minced garlic, the brown rice, water, some Tony Chachere’s Creole Seasoning, a little bit of extra cayenne pepper, and some beef base (Better Than Bouillon). Chicken base would probably have been better, but I’m running lower on my jar of chicken base than I am on my jar of beef base, so I decided to use the beef base. I brought it back up to a boil and then I added the andouille, sliced on the bias into little disks. It will take longer to cook than regular jambalaya because the brown rice takes longer to cook than white rice.

It’s simmering now. My friends who are Cajun food experts will probably find fault with some part of another of this, but I’m anxious to see how it turns out.

blue like jazz

I am going to be teaching a new Sunday School class starting later this month at First United Methodist Church. This is being referred to as a young adult class, since I think some of the people who aren’t currently in classes fit into that demographic, but it’s actually open to anyone who wants to attend. We aren’t actively trying to poach anyone from existing classes.

Rev. Lanita Monroe announced from the pulpit a few weeks back that she was looking for people for several different Sunday School classes, including a young adult class. I’d been feeling burned out, for a variety of reasons, with Sunday School, and I’d been missing it more and more often lately. I now think that might have been a God thing. But we’ll see.

I’m re-reading Donald Miller’s “Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality,” which I’d used with a previous, now-defunct class and which I’ve chosen to start out this new  class. It’s one of my favorite books, and one I hope will lend itself to some good discussion. But that will depend on who we actually have in the class.

We’ll also need to find someone I can rely on to take over the class on occasion, since I’ll still get called on as a lay speaker from time to time.

“Blue Like Jazz” isn’t like most other Christian books you’ve read before. (It has a cuss word!) It’s not really a narrative, even though it was turned into a movie (more about that in a second). But there are some sort of storylines to it, involving some time Miller, who was already a college graduate, spent auditing classes at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, which is considered one of the most-secular, least religion-friendly campuses in the nation. But it’s not really a story of Don versus The Atheists; it’s more a story of Don versus Himself, as he struggles to find his own faith, somewhere between the church he was raised in and the secularism that surrounds him. It’s also the story of Don finding a community of friends who hold each other accountable.

I still remember how I came to read the book. Christianity Today excerpted a chapter from it, in which Don and his circle of Christian friends try to decide what to do about Reed College’s Ren Fayre, an annual festival famous for its debauchery. They ended up building a confession booth – but festival-goers who wandered into the booth were shocked when it was Don and his friends doing the confessing. You really have to read the full story.

This Sunday, I’m going to take the chance to go hear my father preach at Mt. Lebanon UMC before the new class starts.

Oh, about that movie: I haven’t seen it yet. I started watching it one night, while I had Netflix, but I got interrupted and never went back. This is ironic for two reasons. As I said, the book is one of my favorites. And the director of the movie was Steve Taylor. Remember Steve Taylor? The musician I was so thrilled to see performing live in November?

As I said, the movie puts a narrative to a book that doesn’t really have one. It also fictionalizes the story somewhat. In real life, Don Miller was a college graduate by the time he started hanging around Reed College. But the movie version of Don is a fresh-faced college student escaping from a fundamentalist upbringing.

Maybe if the class gels, and people enjoy the book, we can have a party and watch the movie together.

accidental chicken soup

I use a lot of chicken thighs. I buy them in a value pack, cook a couple, and then put the rest of them into freezer bags.

I had defrosted a couple of thighs earlier in the week and didn’t get to them as quickly as I thought. Friday night, even though I’d already eaten dinner, I decided I needed to go ahead and cook them before they went bad.

I decided to poach them, in water, Italian seasoning, onions , red pepper flake and a little salt. I pulled them out of the water when they were done – and then it occurred to me that I had some wing tips in my freezer. No, not shoes. The third, inedible segment of a chicken wing. I do occasionally buy chicken wings, and when I do I cut them up myself and I save the tips for making stock. They may not have meat, but they have some flavor, and they have lots of connective tissue (which helps give body to stock or broth). I tossed the tips into the water I’d used for poaching the chicken and let them cook until bedtime. I strained out the wing tips and the onions and put the broth in a jar to chill overnight

I tasted the stock the next day –  it was delicious. A wee bit too salty, but it had so much flavor that I knew I could add a little water to it.

So today, after getting home from church, I put the stock and a little bit of water to the boil and threw in some dried Amish noodles I bought at the Cheese Barn. When the noodles were almost cooked, I added the chicken meat from the other night, plus a little bit of fresh-squeezed lemon juice just to perk up the flavor. I even grated the lemon zest and sprinkled it on top of the bowl.

Turned out pretty well, if I do say so myself.

overwhelmed

Each year about this time, the Mountain T.O.P. ministry holds a celebration at its headquarters and base camp, Cumberland Pines, between Altamont and Coalmont in Grundy County.

The event serves several purposes. About three-quarters of those in attendance are twenty-somethings who’ve been part of the Mountain T.O.P. summer staff in the past few years. Many of the individual camp staffs become quite close, and this is a great chance for them to reconnect. I love hearing the little squeals every few minutes from the women as some new person enters the room, to big hugs and laughter.

InstagramCapture_1d781efc-6c93-4e1c-9092-f28ce24f0de3Old fogeys are allowed to attend as well: current and former board members, Adults In Ministry campers and other friends of the ministry. I’m a former board member, an AIM camper and (I hope) a friend of the ministry. It’s a reunion for us as well, and tonight I got to see good friends like Jan Schilling, Sonja Goold, Ray Jones, Bob Willems, Reed and Deeda Bradford, and more. (I even got to see Sandy Hayostek, who I actually know through a LEAMIS trip – I don’t believe I’ve ever been at a Mountain T.O.P. event with her before.)

Finally, the event serves as the introduction of Mountain T.O.P.’s theme for the year. Each year, the ministry chooses a theme scripture and accompanying slogan, which is made into a logo. The logo appears on T-shirts, banners and preparation materials, and it’s also used as a theme for various worship services and devotions at camp events.

10903823_10203343271808331_3047647520528749390_oThis year’s theme is “Overwhelmed.” (I stole this photo from Sonja’s Facebook feed; don’t think she’ll mind.) The theme scripture is Psalm 42, and the inspiration was a song by Big Daddy Weave. (I wasn’t familiar either.)

As Mountain T.O.P.’s executive director, Rev. Ed Simmons, pointed out, the Psalm itself sounds more like lament than praise. But if you look closely, you realize it’s also about allowing the love of God to overwhelm us when we feel overwhelmed by trouble.

Of course, this year the theme logo will also have to share some of the spotlight with another logo – one we haven’t gotten to see yet. Ed said preparations are still being made for a special logo to celebrate Mountain T.O.P.’s 40th anniversary this year.

Tonight, though, was all about the theme reveal.

Dinner was poppy seed chicken – a Mountain T.O.P. staple for pretty much all of the ministry’s 40-year history, well before I got involved in 1993.

The e-mail invitation had suggested that we wear vintage Mountain T.O.P. T-shirts, although not everyone noticed it. I wore my all-time favorite Mountain T.O.P. shirt. I bought it during my very first AIM camp in 1993, although I think the shirt was actually from a year or two before that.

All in all, a very nice evening, and well worth the drive to and from Altamont.

the sting

“The Sting” will be on Turner Classic Movies tonight. I love, love, love that movie. To me, it seems like such a part of popular culture that it might be beyond blogging about, but it occurs to me that some of my younger readers may not have gotten around to it yet.

Get around to it. Watch or DVR it tonight, or get it from Netflix or wherever. Just see it.

It’s a great showcase for its two stars, Paul Newman and Robert Redford, of course, but it’s just as good from an ensemble standpoint – Robert Shaw, Eileen Brennan, Ray Walston, Harold Gould, Charles Durning, Dana Elcar and on and on.

It’s a period piece, set in the Great Depression, although Marvin Hamlisch’s score (“The Entertainer” was a top-40 hit at the time of the movie’s release) is actually based on music from the 1920s. Johnny Hooker (Redford) is a small-time con artist. He and his partner/mentor Luther (Robert Earl Jones, the father of James Earl Jones!) are being pursued by a surly and mean-spirited police officer (Durning).

Hooker and Luther pull a con on a victim who later turns out to be a money-runner for a powerful Chicago New York crime lord, Doyle Lonnegan (Shaw). At first, they think they’ve hit the jackpot – but Lonnegan doesn’t like having his profits stolen, and sends enforcers after them, with tragic results.

Hooker wants revenge. He seeks out Luther’s old partner, a legendary but retired con artist named Henry Gondorff (Newman). The two of them put together an all-star team of con artists to bilk Lonnegan. But Durning’s cop character is still in hot pursuit of Hooker, and could ruin everything.

To say much more would be to spoil the plot. There are twists and turns galore, but the movie is so brilliantly-conceived that when you go back and watch it again, it all holds up. In fact, this movie almost demands that you watch it a second time, just to try to figure it all out.

It’s everything a movie should be – funny and exciting and happy and sad. If by some slim chance you’ve missed seeing it until now, please watch or tape it tonight.

book update

I am still working, off and on, on the possible self-published book I mused about a few weeks back. For those of you who missed it, I’m toying with taking some pre-existing material like sermons, adding some newly-written material, and self-publishing a book of sort of essays and devotions. I want to at least try putting it together and seeing if it seems like something anyone else would be interested in reading.

And I would use the same avenues I used for my Bad Self-Published Novel, so there’d be little upfront expense.

I’ve picked out a few sermons that I want to turn into essays – and that’s more challenging than it sounds. I have taken down a long essay on faith that I used to have on this site so that I can adapt big chunks of it for inclusion. And I’ve come up with some ideas for original material that I want to work on as well.

A couple of things I’ve worked on are a little too rambliing, and I need to figure out what to do about them. But there are things I’m proud of that I think would work well in print.

I’m in no hurry, but I want to keep working on it so that it doesn’t fall by the wayside.

elmo, kimmel and bob barker

I usually record Letterman and Fallon, which means I usually miss Jimmy Kimmel, even though I enjoy him as well.

I was watching a rerun of his tonight, and he randomly selected an audience member to go on a scavenger hunt on Hollywood Boulevard, right outside the theater where his show is taped (and where I once stood for two hours in the standby line, all for naught). She was supposed to bring back one of the costumed characters who pose for photos with tourists — specifically, Elmo — as well as a Christmas tree topper from a tree near the theater and a few other items.

But she wasn’t actually selected at random — once she was out of the theater, Kimmel revealed that all of the balls in the drawing had the same seat number on them. After she returned with Elmo and the other items, Elmo revealed himself to be her boyfriend, who then pulled an engagement ring out of the tree topper. I love stuff like that. (She said yes, by the way.)

When I was a child, the game show “Truth or Consequences,” hosted by Bob Barker before he took on “The Price is Right,” did a lot of stunts like that, often involving reuniting a serviceman, who’d been out of the country or at sea, with his wife. They would pull three or four audience members to play a game – which was, after all, the normal format of the show – but it would turn out that one of the audience members was actually a plant, and at some point before or during the game he would be swapped out for the husband. The game would involve costumes or some other gimmick so that the wife couldn’t see her partner in the game; she would assume that her teammate was the nice man from the audience she’d met a few minutes earlier. She’d be so caught up in the excitement of the game, and being on TV, that once the game was over, it would take her a second or two to look over in the right direction and process what she was seeing there.

I looked to see if I could find an example of one of the reunions on YouTube, but the only thing I could find was a reunion of two Italian brothers, who hadn’t seen each other in decades.