Musings from an interesting vacation

I don’t normally feel compelled to write to the world about the goings-on of my vacation time, but I spent enough time behind the wheel of our camper van in the past week that I had time to ponder a few things that I will share with anyone who cares to read!

We had two goals (and a third that Diana didn’t know about) on this vacation:  spend a couple of days with friends in Ohio, and visit the world’s largest knife store in Tennessee.  The third goal, which was a surprise to Diana, was to meet a mutual friend, whom we have not seen in some time, in Pennsylvania.

She was happily surprised.

We have shared a relationship with our friends in Ohio for many years (with her, over 10, with him, over 20).  He is my mentor in model railroading; he’s forgotten more about the hobby than I’ll ever know.  His new avocation is serving as a volunteer at the Pennsylvania Trolley Museum in Washington, PA.  They wanted us to see the place, so after arriving at their home and settling in, we drove a few hours to the museum for a private tour.  I even got to sit at the controls of (and operate…sssshhh…don’t tell anyone!) an old streetcar that had once roamed the urban rails of Pittsburgh!

From Ohio, we headed eastward for Pennsylvania, where Diana was delighted to see a friend of ours.  Any marriage takes trust, and neither Diana nor I are fond of surprises.  But she trusted me on this one, despite wanting to know what it was all about.  She had no idea until we walked in the door of the place where we met our friend.  I’m glad she was happy about the surprise!

After that, we headed for Tennessee.  While visiting the world’s largest knife store was an interesting curiosity (at which, by the way, I did not buy a knife), the desire was just to see some territory we had not seen before, and experience some warm temperatures.  While we were in that neck of the woods, Diana wanted to retrace some steps of her childhood and visit Cades Cove in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

I was game to give it a try, but had no idea of the challenges we would face.  Spoiler alert:  my Apple Watch granted me my move goal for the day solely by steering the van!  When most people read “mountains” and “park” in the same phrase, they would expect endless switchbacks and dangerous grades, and might not take anything other than an ATV or a pickup on such a journey, but not us!  We took a cotton-pickin’ motor home through this windy, hilly, shoulder-less terrain.

If you have ever driven a large vehicle with overheating brakes, you can imagine what that felt like.  It was one of those moments when I wish I had been able to call my late father and ask him what that was all about.  Thankfully, once the brakes cooled down, everything worked fine, but now that we’re home, the van is going in for a mechanical examination!  Pro tip:  don’t drive a motor home through the Smokies.  You’re welcome.

From there (and no, we didn’t go to Dollywood!), we headed north again, stopping in mid-Kentucky on Saturday night, and scrolled the Internet for a place to worship on Sunday.

Most people seeking a church treat the congregation’s website as a “front door”, and as I sought out a nearby worship gathering for the next morning, we settled on a church about 15 minutes from the campground.  While the website said a lot about what the church believed – basics of historic Christianity, really – we were not prepared for what we experienced.

It was a small congregation – smaller than ours, which makes it quite small by US standards – composed mostly of younger families with kids, which was great to see.  The service began at 11:00, and we had Communion 15 minutes in.  Most churches, like ours, celebrate the Lord’s Supper as a response to the Word, near the end of the service, but this congregation came to the Lord’s Table early in the service, which seemed odd to me.  (It was also a bit odd that the server, who also happened to be the preacher for the service, took the tray of grape juice from me so quickly that he bumped me and I got grape juice on my pants.  It’ll come out.)

What was particularly striking, though, was the sermon.  I don’t know who the preacher was (who also served Communion), whether he was their regular preacher or a guest or an intern or what he was, but he began preaching at 11:30 and stopped, I suspect, sometime around 6:00 p.m.

(Okay, that’s probably an exaggeration.  Probably.)

There was not a thing wrong with what he said, but how he said it was, well, boring as spit.

He was approaching his third point (of heaven knows how many) forty-five minutes into the message, having repeated himself many times and done what seemed his best to make the gospel as boring as possible.

My heart ached.  

We wanted to hit the road, so at the beginning of Point Number Three, we quietly departed from our back-row seat.  (Is that why most people like to sit at the back?  To make a quick escape if worship suddenly appears to be turning into a hostage-taking?)

There was a lesson for this preacher in that experience.

If you’ve ever listened to me, you know I try to keep the energy up, the material engaging, and the truth front-and-centre.  Sometimes, I go long.  But I’m not repetitive.

As a preacher, I try to be a good listener to preaching as well, especially when I am in the worshipping congregation.  And at times, I find this a terribly trying task, because the quality of preaching that’s available nowadays is decidedly abysmal.

I don’t know precisely why this is the case.  Sometimes, I wonder if it’s bad training, or a lack of training altogether in the arts of sermon preparation and delivery (and, let the reader understand, these are arts).  But when I visit churches while on vacation, I often come away disappointed, despite my best efforts to engage deeply.

What particularly saddens me about these experiences is that I get only so many Sundays off in a year, and I like to steward them well by engaging with congregations where I’m going to be edified, encouraged and challenged, both as a disciple of Jesus and as a communicator of the gospel of Christ.  And after Sunday, I must admit, I feel as though I squandered one of those opportunities.

I hope and pray that no preacher who ever listens to me feels that way, and I will work to ensure that is the case to my dying day.

Upon our escape from the hostage situation, we stopped for lunch at a place that is becoming more common in the US, even as one creeps north, and that’s Buc-ees.  On our way to that big knife store, we saw the largest-ever one being built, near Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.  The one we visited in Kentucky was no slouch, either.  If you’ve never been in one, think of it as the love child of Walmart and a gas station.  And try the brisket sandwich.  I don’t know if it was the proximity to Lexington on the day of The Derby, but it was very busy.

Everything else we did was rather pedestrian (though, ironically, we did little walking!), but let me leave you with a few statistics:

  • Warmest temperature achieved:  28 degrees Celsius, in Tennessee
  • Coldest temperature achieved:  4 degrees Celsius, in Ohio (the furnace was on!)
  • Distance travelled:  just over 4,200 km (time for an oil change!)
  • Lowest gas price seen:  US$2.969 per gallon (about C$1.05 per litre; alas, our tank was full at that time!)
  • Highest gas price seen:  US$3.699 per gallon (about C$1.31 per litre, which was still cheaper than the C$1.469 per litre we saw when we crossed back)
  • States visited:  10 (this includes a very brief journey through Maryland and an only slightly longer journey through West Virginia; the distance through the other 8 made up for it)
  • Hills ascended and descended and switchbacks traversed:  we both ran out of fingers and toes to count these, just in the park
  • Work emails awaiting me when I got home:  134
  • Actual emails worth reading and replying to:  77
  • Homes “plugged in” to for sleeping:  1 (thanks, friends!)
  • Campgrounds stayed at:  3 (all KOAs)
  • Truck stops slept at:  2 (“dry camping” is handy when all you need to do is sleep)
  • Memories made with the One You Love:  too many to count

If you made it this far, thanks for reading.  It’s good to be home.