Come to AIM in 2015

I submitted, and they were kind enough to print, an item on Mountain T.O.P. for this week’s church newsletter. I’ll share it below as well. Mountain T.O.P. has some administrative ties to the United Methodist Church, but its programs are interdenominational, and are attended each year by individuals and groups from a wide variety of denominational backgrounds.
I will also share a couple of videos: My personal video from the AIM event I attended last summer, plus the camp slideshow from that same week. My video, by necessity, only shows things I was present for, which means there’s no footage of home repair. The slideshow is therefore more comprehensive.


Mountain T.O.P. has announced the dates for its Adults In Ministry program for next summer. At the week-long camps, each individual adult volunteer can choose between participating in the home repair ministry or participating in a ministry which serves children and youth.

  • June 7-13, Home repair or Kaleidoscope. Kaleidoscope is an arts program for elementary-age special needs children; volunteers can either lead a workshop or volunteer to help with workshops led by others. “Special needs” is broadly-defined and includes a wide variety of situations.
  • June 21-27, Home repair or Summer Plus. Summer Plus is a program of enrichment workshops for young teenagers. Workshops can include anything from sports to cooking to crafts. As with Kaleidoscope, you can either volunteer to lead a workshop yourself or to help with workshops led by others.
  • July 5-11, Home repair or Quest. Quest is an adventure camp in which teenagers get to do activities like rafting and rappelling. Adult volunteers work in a support role; they can participate in activities but can skip any activity with which they’re not comfortable.

In the home repair program, teams of about six volunteers spend the week making improvements to the home of a needy individual or family.
Prior experience is NOT required for any of the four programs, and there will be volunteers of both genders and at all skill and experience levels in each program.
2015 is the 40th anniversary of the Mountain T.O.P. ministry, and so the ministry has a goal of recruiting at least 40 volunteers for each of the camp weeks. All of the weeks are held at Camp Cumberland Pines near Altamont in Grundy County.
Getting away on a short-term mission trip can be a time of spiritual refreshment as well as service; the experience of living for a week in a supportive, fun Christian community is a true blessing.
For more information, contact me or go to http://mountain-top.org/adults-in-ministry-aim/


Your daily word

DAB logoIt’s around the time of year for me to make my annual plug for the Daily Audio Bible, which I’ve followed for several years.

We sometimes have a bad habit as Christians of sticking to only our favorite warm-and-fuzzy Bible passages, and not making any attempt to understand the passages that bore us or, even worse, make us uncomfortable. A focused plan for going through the whole Bible forces us to address the whole Bible – which isn’t always easy or pleasant. Sometimes it raises questions and forces you to turn to your pastor, or to commentators or authors whom you trust, for clarification. Sometimes, you still aren’t sure what to believe. But I think it’s vitally important for us to confront the Bible and meet it head-on.

There are, of course, numerous Bible-through-the-year reading plans, such as the excellent one developed by Discipleship Journal magazine, which you can download here. There are also many Bible-on-CD products, generally with stentorian voices chewing on the holy scenery.

DAB is different from either of these. It’s a daily podcast – you can listen on your computer, use any podcast-catching software or RSS feed reader to subscribe, or download official DAB apps on your phone or tablet.

Brian Hardin, based in Spring Hill, takes you through the Bible in a year’s time. Each day there’s an Old Testament reading, a New Testament reading, a reading from Psalms and a reading from Proverbs. All of the readings proceed in chronological order – that is, the Old Testament readings start with Genesis on January 1 and wrap up with Malachi on December 31; the New Testament starts with Matthew on January 1 and ends with Revelation on December 31. Psalms is actually repeated twice over the course of the year.

Brian’s reading style is friendly and conversational, not like a performance. They don’t just repeat the same tape from year to year; even though the schedule is the same from year to year, each day’s reading is recorded fresh before it’s released. If Brian is sick or otherwise unable to record and post that day’s podcast, his wife Jill steps in. (The two of them also read Song of Solomon as a dialogue each year, which is kind of sweet.)

The version of the Bible used rotates each week – this is actually one part of the podcast I’d change if I could. Some of the translations are great, but a few of the paraphrases are gimmicky and distracting. A few years ago, when a special edition of the NIV was published based around the DAB schedule, Brian proposed using just the NIV that year so that people could follow along in the printed version. But I was outvoted by other DAB listeners, who apparently like the rotating versions.

The normal schedule for the podcast runs like this: Brian introduces the podcast, then does the readings. If he’s getting into a new book of the Bible, he makes a few introductory remarks about that book prior to starting it. Usually, after he’s given all four readings, he makes a few brief remarks about one of them. His remarks generally strive to be non-denominational, but the context he provides can sometimes be helpful, especially in the case of difficult passages. You can always use this as a jumping-off point for your own research, or conversation with a friend or clergy member.

Then he talks briefly about the DAB community, his upcoming speaking engagements, retreats, or trips to the Holy Land. Then, the podcast concludes by playing prayer requests received (by voicemail) on a 24-hour prayer line. Occasionally, maybe once a week, the announcements and prayer requests are replaced by a song appropriate to that day’s readings.

If all you want is the Bible reading itself, you can turn away as soon as it’s finished. Or you can listen to the reading plus Brian’s remarks and prayer, or you can listen to the whole episode. It’s completely up to you. The amount of time you spend each day depends on how much you listen to.

DAB tries to encourage a sense of community, although I admit I haven’t been too active in it. In addition to the recorded prayer requests, there are various message forums at the DAB web site. There are also a few other podcasts you can subscribe to at the site, including a daily Bible podcast for kids, a daily podcast with just Proverbs, and versions of the DAB in multiple languages.

I’ve found the DAB to be helpful, and I think some of you might too. Thursday would be an excellent time to jump in and try it out, just to see if you like it.

Mellow here, mellow there

I had a wonderful weekend in Sevier County with my father and Mrs. Rachel; my brother from North Carolina and his family; and my sister and two of her three children.

We stayed in Sevierville. We had a couple of big family meals together, one of them being at the Applewood Farmhouse Restaurant on the campus of the Apple Barn in Sevierville. I’d been there once before; it’s fantastic. Great, country-style cooking. They bring wonderful apple fritters and apple butter to the table before your meal, along with a little juice glass of a mixed juice they call an “apple julep.” It’s not alcoholic – although there is a winery at the Apple Barn itself, next door, and I bought a bottle of apple blush, a semi-sweet apple wine with a little grape wine to give it color. I’ll open it up one night this week, and will probably have a glass on New Year’s Eve.

For much of the weekend, we also spent time just going our own way in various groups.

On Saturday morning, my youngest niece Ila had the time of her life fighting dragons at MagiQuest in Pigeon Forge. Her mother Kelly was with her while Michael, Daniel and I were in another part of the building playing miniature golf. MagiQuest was right on the parkway in Pigeon Forge, and we noted that there was a Mellow Mushroom pizza restaurant right next door. I’d never been to one, but Michael and Kelly had, as had Jacey and Jacob.

Later in the day, we went to Gatlinburg, where I hooked up with Elecia, Jacey and Jacob for a while.

As the sun set, Mike and Kelly said they were going to the Mellow Mushroom for dinner. Jacob and I wanted to join them, while Elecia and Jacey wanted to go to The Island, a big shopping complex in Pigeon Forge, and eat at Margaritaville.

So Elecia and Jacey got off the trolley at The Island, while Jacob and I continued on to a stop at MagiQuest and walked next door.

Here’s the funny part. We had noticed earlier, when trying to figure out which trolley stop we needed, that there are two Mellow Mushrooms in Pigeon Forge, within a very short distance of each other. The one Jacob and I were at, along with Michael and Kelly and the kids, was right on the parkway. The other one was at The Island.

So we were greatly amused, in the middle of our (wonderful) meal, when Jacob got a text saying that Jacey and Elecia had decided  not to eat at Margaritaville because of a two-hour wait time to get a table. Instead, they were eating at … you guessed it … the other Mellow Mushroom.

Google Maps shows the two locations as being 7/10 of a mile from each other.

We all had a big laugh over it.

It was a really wonderful trip, and a great chance to spend time with the family.

rub a dub dub

I learned how to make soap for the mission trip I took to Kenya in 2005, and I’ve made it a few times since – but not in a long while. We never finalized the workshop list for my currently-postponed trip to Liberia, but Debra had mentioned soapmaking as a possibility, and so I’d been meaning to refresh my skills.

Then, a week or two ago, my father asked me if I’d made any soap lately, saying that he liked my homemade soap and was now out.

If I’d been on top of things, I’d have made soap a month ago, so that I could have given it out to everyone at Christmas this week – the soap has to cure for a month, and if something turns out wrong and you have to rebatch it takes even longer.

But Dad’s comment got me to thinking. I bought the cheapest little digital kitchen scale I could find a few days ago, while doing some Christmas shopping. I think the last good one I had was intentionally left with the church on one of my foreign trips. I had a little spring scale, but I didn’t trust it – and soapmaking, as I’ll tell you, is an exact science.

What I do, and what I’ve taught on two or three trips, is cold process soapmaking, which is slightly different from the method your great-great-grandmother might have used. The fats are heated up, partially to melt solid fats like lard or coconut oil but also so that the fats will be the same temperature as the lye solution when the two are combined. Lye is added to water, and it heats up on its own, due to a chemical process. The two liquids are therefore pretty warm when they’re combined, but no further heat is added. Your great-great-grandmother would have made hot process soap, a slightly different method in which the soap mixture is cooked to accelerate the chemical reaction.

The cold process mixture is stirred, by hand or with a stick blender, until enough soap has formed to thicken and emulsify the mixture and keep the oil and water from separating. This thickened stage is called “trace,” and the marker for it is that if you pick up the spoon and drizzle a little bit of the soap onto itself, you can see the line. If you’re stirring only by hand, as with my students in Kenya, this can take 45 minutes to an hour – and you have to stir constantly for the first 30 minutes. If you have a stick blender, it happens a lot more quickly.

Once the soap has traced, you can try adding coloring or fragrances. I say “try” because most coloring agents or scents added at this stage won’t actually take. The soap is still quite alkaline, and will be for weeks, until every last bit of lye has reacted with fat to produce soap. That alkalinity tends to kill off anything you add.

Most homemade soap that has colors or fragrances is “hand-milled” soap. The soap is made without any additives and then allowed to cure completely. Then it’s ground up, or “milled,” and melted down with a little water so that color or fragrance can be added. Hand-milling is a tricky process, and one I have not mastered. I end up with something that looks more like cottage cheese than soap, or else I add too much water and end up with a soupy mess.

By the way, there’s a different hobby called “melt and pour soapmaking” which is an easier version of this. It starts with a special soap base, available at any hobby shop, which has been formulated to melt easily and smoothly (think of it as the Velveeta of soap). You melt it down, then add whatever you like – color, fragrance, exfoliants, what have you – and pour it into molds.

Essential oils have the best chance of surviving when added to newly-made soap, but I had not thought to buy any. I added a little bit of peppermint extract to tonight’s batch, but I don’t expect it to actually survive. I think this will turn out to be fragrance-free, off-white soap.

Once the soap traced and I stirred in the peppermint, I poured it into molds – not the real soap molds you buy at Hobby Lobby, but little Gladware lunch containers that happen to be about the same general shape as a bar of soap.

WP_20141221_005

It will take a couple of days for the soap to harden enough to be taken out of the molds, and then I will have to wrap the bars up in paper and let them cure for a month, on the off chance that there are any little crystals of lye which haven’t yet saponified.

It was fun to make a batch, although I’m always a little nervous when working with the lye. As recommended, I wore safety goggles and gloves. Fortunately, I still had some Red Devil lye left over from my older soap-making days. You used to be able to buy Red Devil, which was 100 percent pure lye and perfect for amateur soapmaking, in any store – it was sold as a drain-opener. But Red Devil stopped selling the product. That may have a liability concern, been because lye can be used in meth production, although the company never said for sure. Now, one has to order lye online by mail.

I have a spray bottle filled with vinegar standing by in case of any stray splashes of lye water or young soap. I also soak all the utensils in vinegar before washing them.

Soapmaking is a fun hobby. Part of the fun is searching for the holy grail of soap recipes. Some oils make a hard bar of soap, others provide more lather, and still others are great for conditioning. The website http://soapcalc.net has a wonderful calculator that you can use to work out a recipe, and it will give you some idea of the resulting soap’s qualities.

Recipes must be followed carefully. You must have at least enough fat to react with all of the lye, but you can adjust the recipe to add just a little bit more, called “superfatting,” in order to give a moisturizing richness to the final product. If you try to add too much, however, your soap bar will be squishy and greasy.

I would like to have used palm oil as part of the mix today, but that, too, has to be ordered online, and I didn’t have any. Tonight’s batch included the cheapest light olive oil I could find (no sense wasting money on extra virgin!), a little coconut oil for lather, and some good old fashioned lard, all from the supermarket. When you first start soapmaking, you’re advised to begin with lard. It’s cheap, always a benefit when you’re learning something for the first time, and it makes a basic, well-rounded bar of soap. Its main drawback is a little bit of pork smell, some of which can even survive the alkalinity of the lye solution.

Some day, I want to try making goat’s milk soap. The goat’s milk is used in place of the water, and it’s supposed to give the soap beneficial qualities.

Another fun recipe to try is gardener’s soap – in which you use brewed coffee in place of the water and add some of the grounds to the recipe as a scrubbing agent.

One thing that all homemade soap has in common is that it’s rich in glycerine, a skin conditioner. Glycerine is a natural byproduct of the soapmaking process – but it’s used in so many other products, from hand lotion to toothpaste, that the big commercial soapmakers chemically extract some of the glycerine from their soap so that they can use it in other products. Homemade soap has all of its glycerine intact.

I hope this batch comes out well. It has continued to thicken after being poured into molds. When I take it out of the molds in a few days I should at least be able to tell if all my measurements and ratios were right. If I had too much lye, the soap will be powdery and crumbly. Too much fat, and it won’t harden up properly and will be soft and squishy. We’ll have to wait and see, and no one in the family will be getting any in their Christmas stocking.

Me, Pat and the governor

In August, Gov. Bill Haslam attended one night of the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration, where he was accompanied on the grounds by State Rep. Pat Marsh.

I had taken a number of photos that night, when Pat — who I’ve known professionally since we were in a civic club together, long before he entered the General Assembly — playfully suggested that since I was always taking photos, I needed to be in a photo him with the governor. I went along, and posed for a photo with the two of them. Someone took it on my T-G camera, and the state photographer who was with Gov. Haslam also took it.

The photo from my camera turned out nicely, and I printed out a little snapshot of it at home and shared it with the family, but I didn’t post it anywhere. Posting a photo of myself with an elected official, of either party, just seemed like a bad idea, even if it was just taken on a whim. People might take it differently than it was intended.

I do not wear my political heart on my sleeve — I don’t think it’s a good idea for journalists to do so. I have always endeavored to be fair to both parties, and I like to think I have good relationships with both parties locally. (I think of myself as a centrist, and I’ve voted for candidates from both parties over the years.) My work should speak for itself, and as long as it does then my private political opinions are my own business. Getting too chummy with one side or the other is just an invitation for people to criticize.

I had the day off work yesterday, but my editor e-mailed me to confirm that I would be in the office at 11 a.m. today, saying only that the reason I needed to be here was “a surprise.”

At 11 a.m., a number of T-G employees were summoned to the front office, where Pat Marsh was waiting with a beautifully framed, and autographed, copy of the state photographer’s photo of him, me and the governor. Pat’s autograph thanked me for being “fair and informative.” It was a very kind gesture; I know the spirit in which it was given, and I was moved by it.

All that is a roundabout way of saying I don’t guess it would hurt too much to show you this:

framed photo

For my out-of-state friends, Rep. Marsh is on the left and Gov. Haslam is on the right. Bill Haslam and his brother Jimmy (now owner of the Cleveland Browns) built a small company started by their father into the Pilot truck stop chain.

book proposal

I am toying with doing another self-published book.

This would not be a novel, like my Bad Self-Published Novel. Instead, it would be a book of essays and devotions, including both new material and a few of my favorite sermons updated and rewritten for the printed page.

Don’t get me wrong – I still think I have another novel in me. I started on National Novel Writing Month this year, but the particular framework I had took a left turn and I didn’t think it was going anywhere.

But this morning, as I was sitting in church listening to the beautiful music of our choir’s Christmas cantata, something started me thinking about this idea. I’ve flirted with it in the past, but never really gotten very far with it. But after I got home from church and ate lunch, I pulled out one of my favorite sermons – about the spiritual secrets of the Frisbee — and started rewriting it.

We’ll see if this goes anywhere.

chili grind

I went into Walmart after work today, to pick up one or two things – and you know how that usually works out.

I was at the meat case and became unreasonably happy to see this:

chiligrind

Chili grind meat! Which I normally can’t find at all in Shelbyville, and not only did Walmart have it but it was on sale! I snatched it up. I could have made chili from scratch, but I wimped out and bought a Carroll Shelby’s kit, a can of tomato sauce, two cans of Ro-Tel and a little tub of sour cream for garnish. The chili is simmering even as we speak.

What you see in the photo above is two pounds of meat. As you can see, it’s ground much more coarsely – it doesn’t look like yarn but like rope. It’s intended for use in long-simmering chili recipes. It can survive long cooking and still give you nice-sized little chunks of meat in the finished product.

I first learned to make slow-simmered Texas-style chili, without beans, many years ago by using the Wick Fowler’s 2-Alarm Chili Kit and the Carroll Shelby’s Chili Kit. At the time, they were competitors – the Wick Fowler product came on a cellophane-wrapped cardboard tray, while the Carroll Shelby product came in a little brown paper bag. Now, they are both made by the same company and they come in identical cardboard boxes. They’re both good. The main difference between them is that the Wick Fowler product comes with the various ingredients broken down into separate little packets, so that you can monkey around with them if you like – a little less of this, a little more of that. The Carroll Shelby kit has all of the seasonings except salt and cayenne in one bag.

Since both kits have the cayenne in a separate packet, you can adjust the heat level to your family’s liking – add it all, or some of it, or leave it out.

Both kits come with a separate little packet of masa flour, to be added near the end of cooking as a thickener and for its wonderful corn flavor. I belive the Carroll Shelby kit has a little more masa than the Wick Fowler kit.

When I first started using the Wick Fowler and Carroll Shelby kits, the main package directions called for either coarse ground beef (like what  you see above) or, lacking that, beef cut into little chunks. They also had, as an afterthought, separate directions for a quick chili recipe using regular ground beef. But those directions were in smaller type and were not as prominent.

Now, the quick ground beef directions are the only directions appearing anywhere on either product. The original, long-cooking directions are nowhere to be found. Even so, they’re still good products, and you can still use them slowly with coarsely ground beef or little chunks. Since I can never find chili-grind beef in Shelbyville, I usually buy stew meat and then cut each big chunk into several smaller ones, using a pair of scissors. So I was delighted to see the genuine article in Walmart today, and hope they’ll keep carrying it, even if it’s not always on sale.

Most big supermarkets now carry both the Wick Fowler and Carroll Shelby products, side-by-side in their boxes, but Walmart, at least today, only had the Carroll Shelby product.

It feels like a wonderful night for a bowl of chili. I’m glad I happened to wander over to the meat case.

remedial freed unit

Nashville Public Television is currently running a bizarre little special called “Classic Hollywood Musicals.” You might think that a special with that title would be about the breadth and scope of Hollywood musicals, but this is basically about five of them: “The Wizard of Oz,” “Singin’ In The Rain,” “Seven Brides For Seven Brothers,” “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” and (so help me) “Viva Las Vegas.” The special jumps around, presenting a clip and a few little details about one of the musicals, and then another, and then another. There’s no rhyme or reason to it, no attempt to connect any of the movies to each other, and it’s written at a really simplistic and elementary level — many of the little details presented as fascinating revelations are actually old news to any classic movie fan. Is there anyone left who doesn’t know that the studio bosses tried to cut “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” from “The Wizard of Oz”?

What makes matters even worse is that it’s pledge drive season, and the woman co-hosting the pledge breaks keeps gushing about how she hasn’t seen, for example, “Singin’ In The Rain” in decades. She literally said that – decades!

Now, I realize the pledge break is intended to plug public TV stations and their programming. I wouldn’t expect them to mention or acknowledge Turner Classic Movies, a cable channel. But it sounds just bizarre to imply that these movies have been hidden away in a vault somewhere. “Singin’ In The Rain” probably gets shown an average of once a month on TCM. A good three-quarters of the people interested enough in classic movies to sit through this pablum-based documentary in hopes it will eventually become interesting is either a TCM viewer, or has a shelf full of classic movie DVDs, or both.

Yes, I guess there are probably a few elderly technophobes, receiving their public TV station by antenna, without DVD players, for whom catching a glimpse of “Yankee Doodle Dandy” is a rare and special treat. But that seems like a niche, not an audience.

dear santa ….

I haven’t blogged in a while about my weekly time at Learning Way Elementary School as a volunteer with the Raise Your Hand Tennessee program, but I think I’m finding it more satisfying this school year than I ever have before.

Today, Regan gave me three different worksheets to use with the kids, but I really only had time for the first worksheet with each of my three groups. The worksheet was a letter to Santa, with spaces for three gift requests and then three reasons why Santa should bring you things.

Of course, in my actual job, we’re in the middle of processing the scores and scores of Santa letters which the T-G publishes each year (as we have for generations), so it was kind of fun to watch the thought process of such letters being written. Some kids knew exactly what they wanted to write and just needed a little help with spelling. One girl needed a little extra help, and I ended up writing some things for her to trace.

It was just a great time and really put me in the Christmas spirit.

peace pipe

Many of the previews and reviews of last night’s “Peter Pan Live!” noted that the lyrics to one of the songs were changed, with the participation of a Native American consultant, to eliminate negative stereotypes. (Some commentators applauded this, but others still found the scenes with Princess Tiger Lily to be dated and offensive.)

I do try to be sensitive to cultural stereotypes, and in fact I have a relative by marriage who has Native American heritage; connections like that sort of personalize the issue.

Then I noticed that TCM is showing “Good News” tonight. “Good News” is an MGM musical from the late 1940s, starring June Allyson and Peter Lawford, based on a much-older (and supposedly less-sanitized) stage musical. It’s full of all sort of hoary old clichés about college life. I don’t find the story particularly compelling. And yet, I’m going to sit here and watch it for one reason – Joan McCracken, a fascinating musical comedy talent who died tragically young and whom I know mostly from her work in “Good News.”

In fact – and, for reasons mentioned above, I’m ashamed to admit this – I mainly know her from, and am fascinated by, one particular musical number: “Pass That Peace Pipe.” The actual number doesn’t involve any Native Americans – it’s set in a malt shop – but it uses the imagery of the peace pipe and a sort of rhythmic recitation of the names of Indian tribes as if they were nonsense syllables. I know I should find it offensive.

But I can’t look away from McCracken’s performance. She sells that song in a way I’ve seen few musical performers do, staring straight ahead dead into the camera for several long stretches as if she owns the studio and Louis B. Mayer answers to her:

According to Wikipedia, McCracken helped promote Shirley MacLaine, encouraged her then-husband Bob Fosse to take up choreography, and was one of Truman Capote’s inspirations for Holly Golightly. But she had health problems related to diabetes and died when only 42.

I guess I’ll have to take the advice that my friends Brenden and Michael often put out on their podcast and try to be “a filter, not a sponge.”