Campground Review: Arnold AFB FamCamp

Dates: July 8-29, 2015

Campsite: 10

Overall Score: 4.2 (out of 5)

Summary: This rustic, lakeside military campground has a lot of things going for it, and thus is our top scoring campground to date. However, it’s only open to government employees (active, retired, reserves, and DoD civilians). If available, choose RV sites 17, 36, and 18, in that order. If primitive camping, it’s hard to beat site T1, where you could conceivably catch fish from inside your tent…although that would not make a lot of sense.

Along Hiking Path, Woods Reservoir
Along Hiking Path, Woods Reservoir

Recreation/Amenities: 4.6 – Located along the shore of Woods Reservoir, a 4000-acre wilderness lake that provides water for the testing/engineering activities at Arnold AFB. Fishing is superb…supposedly the 3rd best crappie fishing locale in the state of Tennessee. I caught a 3-foot long catfish and dozens of bluegill. (Catfish should not be eaten due to high PCB levels. Also true for catfish caught in ponds near Fukushima, Japan.) Boat rentals are available, ranging from kayaks to ski and pontoon boats. The campground features a beach area, picnic pavilion, horseshoes, a playground, and hiking/biking/horseback riding trails (see link below). Easy drive to fitness center (weights, racquetball courts, etc.), a paved 1.5 mile walking/jogging trail, a larger beach area, commissary/BX, golf course, etc., at Arnold AFB.

Hookups & Connectivity: 4.2 – electric, water, and dump station (partial hookups). Laundry facilities. Free Wi-Fi! No cable TV or sewer connection at site.

Rutledge Falls
Rutledge Falls

Local Vicinity Things to Do: 3.2 – within 15 miles, you’ll find the small towns of Manchester, Winchester and Tullahoma (restaurants, antique stores, small town life). Closer in, you have the previously covered and very affordable things to do on Arnold AFB. Our two favorite Tullahoma stops involved, not surprisingly, hiking. First up, Rutledge Falls features a short, steep descent down to a beautiful waterfall and swimming area. From there, you can hike downstream either beside the creek or in the creek (wear water shoes) for more than a mile. Butterflies were everywhere (cool!) and some of them feasted on a dead animal in the water (not cool!). Next up, the Short Springs Natural Area features 4.5 miles of hiking trails, including the Machine Falls Loop. The up and down climb to the cascading Machine Falls is well worth the effort. In Manchester, we recommend lunch or dinner at the eclectic 50-year-old Jiffy Burger, featuring delicious burgers (imagine that) along with an impressive display of collectibles (mostly toys), music memorabilia, and other nostalgic décor. If you are willing to drive further, you will of course find a host of things to do in the Nashville metropolitan area…more on that in a future blog.

Machine Falls
Machine Falls

Cleanliness: 4.3 – well-maintained campsite and facilities.

Intangibles: 4.7

Pros – close proximity to Steve’s parents and Arnold AFB activities. Very affordable…just $12/night. Quiet campsite. Fabulous views, right on the water. With just one marina, the lake is very un-crowded. Fun fact: Arnold AFB is home to “the most advanced and largest complex of flight simulation test facilities in the world”…including “43 aerodynamic and propulsion wind tunnels, rocket and turbine engine test cells, space environmental chambers, etc.” (My presence brought the number of wind tunnels to 44.)

Butterfly Landing Zone, Machine Falls Loop

Cons – the campsites are lined up right next to each other…very little spacing or natural barriers. The on-site convenience store is only open on holiday weekends. The campground is off the beaten path, a good drive from any major roads…which could be a plus or minus for you.

Update – due to my mom’s health situation (stage 4 liver cancer, under hospice care), we decided to park the RV at some friend’s house at a nearby lake and move in with my parents for her remaining days. We appreciate your prayers as we care for her, administer the medicine, and encourage my dad as best we can. It has been an emotionally draining time, but God is good all the time and we trust his plan and timing as it relates to my mom.

Big Steve

Biking/Hiking Trails…

Near Rutledge Falls
Near Rutledge Falls
As the deer...
As the deer…
Alright, kids, everyone out of the water!
Alright, kids, everyone out of the water!
Creek walkin' with my lady
Creek walkin’ with my lady


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Laid Up in a Napkin

One of my favorite scenes from one of my favorite movies, Apollo 13, involves a crisis situation with the crew facing dangerously high levels of carbon dioxide. The engineering team is challenged to quickly make the Command Module’s square filter work in the Lunar Module’s round receptacles.  Several technicians gather around a table and dump boxes containing the same tools and equipment that the astronauts have on board.

Technician: We’ve got to find a way to make this… [the square CSM LiOH canister]
Technician: fit into the hole for this [the round LEM canister]
Technician: … using nothing but that.

In other words, we’ve got a job we must do, using only the tools and equipment before us.  To quote another line from the movie, “Failure is not an option.”

I wonder how often people don’t do things…in fact, they don’t even try doing things, because they believe their perceived inventory of skills, knowledge, and ability is insufficient for the task. I do this far too often.  I believe that not enough supplies have been dumped on my table, so I walk away from it, leaving the crew stranded.

In Luke 19 Jesus tells the parable of the ten minas (units of currency).  A rich nobleman went on a trip to be crowned as king…a coronation that many of his people feared because they hated him. He gave three of his servants his money to invest while he was away. Two of them followed his instructions, assumed some risk, and earned a good return on his money. They risked not only losing the money, but possibly being harmed by all the people who opposed the nobleman and his pending coronation. The third servant played it safe, refusing to take any risk in investing the money. Specifically, the money was “laid up in a napkin”…safe and secure, but unproductive. When the nobleman returned, he rewarded the two faithful servants who made money for him, and punished the one who played it safe.


The message here seems to be that God (in the parable, Jesus is the nobleman) expects his servants (that’s you and me) to use…even risk…what we’ve been given (talents, abilities, money, resources) to productively serve others. Preserving and protecting our talent, laying it up in a napkin, constitutes failure…and that’s not an option. According to Vincent’s Word Studies, the Greek word used here for napkin…  (σουδαρίῳ) … comes from the Latin sudarium … which comes from sudor, or perspiration. In other words, the napkin is a cloth used for wiping off sweat. It’s ironic that the servant who refuses to sweat is using a sweat rag to store and protect (but not invest) his master’s money.

Francis Chan illustrates this idea in a classic balance beam video–see link below. He portrays a gymnast who lays on top of a balance beam, clinching it tightly, throughout the duration of the routine. At the conclusion of the routine, the gymnast carefully steps off the beam and raises his hands in victory, expecting applause from the crowd and big scores from the judges. The gymnast was given a balance beam, a mat to land on, and presumably some talent, but played it safe. No risk was taken…the level of difficulty was zero. He compares this to a Christian who plays it safe, never risking anything for God, and then expecting God to reward the effort.  It doesn’t work that way in the Olympics, it didn’t work that way for the servant who took no chances with his boss’s money, and it doesn’t work that way in how we handle our talents and abilities. Whether we’ve been given many talents or perhaps just one, we can’t safely wrap them in a napkin and leave them on the table.

But what about failure? What if we attempt to do something for God and it doesn’t work out? What if the servant loses the money in a bad investment?  What if the gymnast attempts a difficult dismount and doesn’t stick the landing? The parable doesn’t specifically address this, but the implication seems to be that God applauds the effort…the attempt…regardless of the outcome. In fact, in 1 Corinthians 3:6, Paul says, “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow.” Paul emphasizes that his job, Apollos’ job, and by extension our job, is to make a good-faith effort…to try…and then to leave the results up to God. God wants us to take however little or much we’ve been given and do something with it…to take some risks in serving Him.

Fortunately for the astronauts on Apollo 13, the NASA engineers didn’t step away from the table due to a lack of tools and equipment. They aggressively worked the problem and took risks, with no certainty that their gizmo would connect the square canister to the round receptacle.  Fortunately, the procedure worked, the carbon dioxide levels dropped, and the astronauts ultimately survived.  Had the procedure failed and the astronauts died, at least the engineers could have looked their next of kin in the eye and said, “We tried. We gave it our all.”

10 minas

Your talent may be teaching a class, or singing, or encouraging someone in a hospital. Perhaps you have accounting skills to help someone with taxes, or plumbing skills to fix a leak, or counseling skills to help someone get through a tough time. Maybe you can cook a meal for a funeral, or for a family in need. Maybe you’ve got money in the bank to share, or a home that could host a visiting missionary or a youth group event. Whatever your talent is, whatever God has placed on your table…be it one thing or many…put it to use! Don’t lament the fact that you used to have more tools on the table when you were younger and more vibrant. Don’t delay action because you’re young and “someday” you’ll have more tools and talents at your disposal. Use whatever talent or resource God has given you and take some chances with it. Work diligently, do your best, and leave nothing on the table.  When you are finished, use the napkin for its intended purpose, to wipe your brow.   As Francis Chan once said, “Don’t get to the end of your life and have God say, ‘Why’d you play it safe? Why didn’t you take any chances for me?'”

– Big Steve

Francis Chan’s Balance Beam video link…


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Jonestown Massacre: Tragedy and Triumph

At various times in history, fanatical leaders have led followers to do bizarre and sometimes horrible acts in the name of religion. Older readers may remember the story of Jim Jones and younger folks likely have studied or will study him in a history class. The heartbreaking story is a great American tragedy and a reminder of the possible consequences of misguided faith. However, like in most tragic stories, there is also a story to be told of the strength and resolve of some great people who rose to the occasion and responded to the tragedy.

Jim Jones founded his religious cult in Indianapolis and then moved the headquarters to Ukiah, California. When questions arose about human rights violations, Jones moved his followers, known as the People’s Temple, to Guyana, South America. As time passed, Jones began to claim that he was the reincarnation of Jesus, Buddha, and other historic figures. Reports of suspected abuses continued, eventually reaching the United States Congress. As Congress became increasingly concerned with the allegations, Jim Jones started to feel the noose tightening on him and his group. He instructed his followers to hold mass suicide drills, which began with the sound of sirens and ended with his followers drinking a red liquid.

In 1978 Congressman Leo Ryan traveled to the compound, known as Jonestown, to investigate the allegations of abusive activities. A day later, Congressman Ryan planned to leave and take four of the cult’s members with him, but Jones had them all killed. Knowing there would be serious consequences to face for these murders, Jones decided to put his mass suicide plan into action. His aides laced a tub of grape fruit drink with cyanide and he ordered everyone to drink, beginning with the children. Over 900 people died, including various family members who were found huddled close together. Jones took his own life with an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound to the left temple.


Prior to the events of 9/11/01, the Jonestown tragedy was the greatest single deliberate loss of American civilians in history. It was a senseless tragedy that resulted from a group of people who mindlessly held to a bankrupt philosophy and followed an unmerciful, egotistical leader. Interestingly, the phrase “Drinking the Kool-Aid” came about from this tragedy, although technically Jones used Flavor Aid as the poison. According to Chris Higgins in The Atlantic, “Drinking the Kool-Aid” refers to “a person or group holding an unquestioned belief, argument, or philosophy without critical examination”. Socrates taught that an unexamined life is not worth living. I would add that an unexamined, uncritical faith is not worth dying over.

In most history books, articles, and lectures, the story ends there. And now, as Paul Harvey would say, “the rest of the story…” A monumental tragedy had created a monumental mess. What do you with the dead, decomposing bodies of over 900 Americans in Jonestown, Guyana? Since they were Americans, it fell on the United States to clean up the mess and bring the dead bodies home. Projects of this magnitude and complexity often fall on the United States military. Given the circumstances, it made sense to transport the bodies to the Dover Air Force Base mortuary, the largest in the Department of Defense.

As fate would have it, Lieutenant Colonel Bill Turner served as the Deputy Base Commander at Dover AFB during the time of the tragedy. Lt Col Turner was summoned to wing headquarters, where the wing commander explained the situation and asked Turner if he was willing to take charge of the reception and processing of the dead bodies. Turner said that he would, and immediately assembled a group of volunteers who would help him, above and beyond their regular duties. Each prospective volunteer was given the option to decline being on the team, given the anticipated grueling nature of the work. Fortunately, enough brave souls raised their hands and said they would help. According to then-Lt Col Turner, it was a massive undertaking. How do you handle all the media requests? What should the volunteers wear and how long should their shifts be? There was a desire to treat the deceased as human beings; although some expressed concerned that a death by suicide is cowardly and should not be honored.

Despite the best planning efforts of Lt Col Turner and his team, the operation got off to a slow start. The process to solemnly remove the transfer cases containing the bodies from the plane and transfer them was taking too long, and airplanes were backing up. Turner made the call to speed up the process by using pallets to move the transfer cases, but was concerned that the nearby news reporters would criticize the process as undignified or inhumane. Still, he stuck with his decision, the logjam cleared, and the reporter wrote his story.

The next big issue was where to put the bodies. Mortuaries may have room for several bodies waiting to be processed in a mass casualty event…but not over 900 bodies! Lt Col Turner learned of an old ammunition bunker full of furniture that could be used, but would have to be cleaned out first. Turner’s team sprang into action and in hot, humid conditions, emptied the bunker. It was ready to go by 11:00 that night, when a call came from the wing commander, asking to speak to Lt Col Turner. Turner figured the news about the pallets had caused a public outcry, and that he was about to be fired. Instead, the opposite happened. Of the public and others who contacted the base, most were concerned that the suicide victims not be treated like heroes. The news reports of the use of pallets calmed their concerns, which made for a happy wing commander. Turner kept his job.

j town
Aerial view of Jonestown following the massacre

Still, the challenges just kept coming. Refrigerated 18-wheelers were rented to store the bodies, which were contained in gray bags and passed to the truck via a volunteer assembly line. Team members removed each body from its bag, cleaned it, and then transported it to mostly FBI pathologists. Given the number of bodies and round-the-clock operations, Turner needed more volunteers. Many had never seen a dead body, much less touched one. Many were young adults who certainly never envisioned having to perform such a tiring, emotionally draining task.

The team had to empty the pockets of the deceased, which contained notes to next of kin, notes to Jim Jones (who they addressed as their father), and oddly, even toothpaste and toothbrushes. Turner notes that even in gut-wrenching situations, a sense of humor is required. He noted that on one of the bodies, a worker had laid the toothpaste and toothbrush on the deceased’s chest, along with a note that said, “You are our 100th customer. You get free dental care for life.” But mostly, it was serious business. The remains were fingerprinted, embalmed, wrapped in sheets, wrapped in a clear plastic bag and then placed in a black plastic bag. The body bags were then placed in coffins inside a garage, and negotiations took place to transfer them to California for burial.

According to Lt Col Turner, the operation took an incredible toll on the workers. Some broke down in tears during processing, and others experienced nightmares. A few went as long as they could, and then just had to walk away. One worker, who was a member of the same church as Turner, had a baby of his own who wore Pampers diapers. The worker’s job was to unzip the body bags and move them out. According to Turner, “One of the bodies was a baby who wore Pampers.”


Another volunteer was a woman whose task was to burn the organs removed during embalming in a hospital incinerator to prevent disease. While lifting a bag of organs onto the incinerator, it broke and the contents spilled on her. According to those who witnessed the incident, she screamed, pulled off her clothes, and ran outside in just her underwear. According to Lt Col Turner, the amazing part of the story is that she went to another part of the hospital, donned nurse’s scrubs, and went straight back to work. She, along with all the other volunteers, received well-deserved military citations.

In reflecting on this tragic chapter in American history, there are many lessons to learn. Here are two:

  1. Believe in something only after giving it a critical review. Don’t just blindly follow a person or your heart’s emotions. If your religion…your faith…is true, it should stand up to critical scrutiny. It should make sense, and should answer some of the fundamental questions of life. If it doesn’t make sense and can’t stand up to critical scrutiny, it’s not much of a belief system. Still, even a belief in something that is true requires an element of faith…a confidence in what we hope for and an assurance about what we do not see (Hebrews 11:1).
  1. Even in the most tragic situations, good can come from them. If nothing else, they test people. Martin Luther King, Jr., once said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” In 1 Peter 1:6-7, we’re told that, for a little while longer, we’ll have to suffer grief in all kinds of trials, but “These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.” I’d have to say Lt Col Turner and his team of volunteers faced a time of incredible challenge and difficulty and they measured up. Their story may not be told in history books, but it’s being told here.

A final note: everything you’ve read above is true, to the best of my knowledge, except for one. The man in charge of the operation, the leader of the crew of selfless volunteers, was not Lt Col Turner. He was Lt Col Johnson. He answered the call, as he had done many times before…and many times since. Some may know him as retired Colonel Brad Johnson, others know him as Grandpa Johnson, but I usually just call him “Dad”.

– Big Steve

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Inside Out

Big Steve and I love going to the movies. We’re always looking for something to entertain us, but also for the occasional deeper message that we can relate to real life. So when Steve wanted us to go see this new, animated movie “Inside Out”, I have to admit I wasn’t thrilled. He said, “it’s gotten great ratings and I think you’ll enjoy it.” Steve has been known to pick some “not so good” movies based on critic reviews, but I must say with this one I was pleasantly surprised. Not only was the movie entertaining with great animation and comedic interaction between characters, it was also very thought-provoking. So much so, it prompted me to put together a few thoughts about some topics from the movie. If you haven’t seen the movie yet, I will try not to spoil anything for you.

The movie involves a happy little girl named Riley who receives news that her father is moving their family from the Midwest to San Francisco. Of course, this is upsetting news to her. Like all of us, Riley is guided by her emotions and the majority of the movie takes place in a fictional “headquarters” in the control center of Riley’s mind. The emotions running her headquarters are Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust and Sadness. The story progresses showing how each of these emotions come into play in situations throughout Riley’s day, affecting her and those around her.

As Steve and I left this movie, his previous Psychology teaching brain kicked in and he said, “you could write a whole psychological thesis on that movie”. We continued to discuss several ideas from the movie, even several days after seeing it. We talked about how our emotions were working in certain situations. I even caught myself imaging those cute little animated figures going around in my brain. So, I decided to put some thoughts together about the concept of this movie and hope that as you read it you can gather something from it that will help you to understand your mindset or someone else’s a little better.

Inside OutIn the movie, each emotion had a specific job to play in a situation and a certain emotion would emerge as the predominant one that characterized the personality of the person. In Riley’s case, her predominant emotion was Joy, at least up until the time of her move. In our lives, we too should strive to have Joy as our leading emotion. In Romans 15:13, the Bible states “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in Him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” As Christians we are called to be joyful and we can obtain that joy through the peace and hope we receive from the Holy Spirit. We’ve all known people who just always seem to be in a good mood and always find the best in every situation (my friend Jenny Diamond comes to mind). This is an endearing personality and definitely beats letting your other emotions (sadness, anger, disgust, fear) determine your demeanor. However, there may be times when these other emotions need to take over the control board.


In the movie, Joy finds out that every now and then, it’s better for a different emotion to take the lead in a situation. In Riley’s case, this emotion was Sadness. Joy realized toward the end of the movie that Riley needed her emotion Sadness to come to the forefront so that she could deal with her sadness and work through it to move forward. One of the things that struck me about this concept is that we were created with all these emotions for a reason. Emotions, when applied in the right quantities in the right situations, aren’t inherently bad. They all play a part in the makeup of our character. We are who we are because of the part each of these emotions has played in our lives. They allow us to deal with the joys and sorrows we experience in life. It is because of Sadness we know the meaning of Joy. It is because of Anger we can experience Peace. It is because of Disgust we can know the value of Contentment. It is because of Fear that we can experience the thrills of life or avoid certain risky behavior. However, too much Fear might keep you from pursuing a dream or goal that God has in mind for you. We need all our emotions to experience life as fully as God intended us to.

Steve and I have spent this summer helping his dad care for Steve’s  mother who is nearing the end of her journey on this earth. We believe God had this specific mission in mind when planting a seed in our minds to travel the country serving others. Each day presents a series of challenges and each day is full of a range of emotions. Like Riley in the movie, our mind’s control center is operating at full capacity.  It’s interesting how so much emphasis and advice is given on to how to raise children when, at least in our experience, issues with aging parents have been more challenging for us. This summer, there have been moments of deep Sadness as we see Peggy’s body and mind continue to deteriorate, and as we watch Steve’s dad and the rest of the family mourn as we say our long goodbye to her.  There are moments of Fear and Doubt as we question whether we’ve made the right call related to her medication, care, comfort, dietary requests, etc. At times there is Anger that cancer exists and that it is winning the battle against her physical being. There are moments of Despair when we can’t seem to find a way to acceptably comfort her. We have felt some Frustration with God, asking him to either heal her or bring her home to the room He’s prepared for her.

On the other hand, there are moments of Thankfulness…that God gave her a long life, that I had many years with a wonderful mother-in-law, that the family is all working on this together, and for all the cards and prayers that have been offered on her behalf. And just like in the movie, we are finding moments when all the other emotions are pushed aside and Joy emerges. There was Joy when Steve’s mom laughed as he sang Old Man River to her with his belly exposed and then she said “put that thing away”. There is Joy when she is able to recall a distant memory from her past or sing the song “Climb Up Sunshine Mountain” that she sang to every grandkid. There is Joy, and a little Sadness, when we see Steve’s dad curled up next to her in her hospital bed in their bedroom. Before too long, we know Sadness is going to come barreling through the door again and take center stage in our emotional control centers. In a sense, it will always remain with us as we will have a hole in our hearts that no one but Peg can fill. And yet, we’re hopeful that, like in the movie, Joy will triumph at the end of the day. There will be Joy that Peggy is in a much better place and that God “will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:4) Joy will fill our hearts as we reflect on the incredible love she showed us and all the wonderful memories she gave us. We’ll be Joyful knowing that, as Christians, we will see her again some day.

Back to the movie…we hope that you’ll see this “psychological thriller”, and that you’ll use it as a teaching tool with your children and others. It’s a fascinating look at how we allow certain emotions to take center stage in certain situations. How we handle these emotions influences how our friends and others view us.  May we all strive to handle our emotions in a way that others can see God in us.

– Lil Jan

P.S. For an even deeper look at lessons from this movie, I recommend Joseph Lalonde’s “17 Leadership Lessons And Quotes From Pixar’s Inside Out” which can be found at this link…


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The Least Among You

On our journeys down long stretches of road, Lil Jan and I sometimes pass the time by playing “3 Questions”.  We ask each other three questions, with the goal being to learn something about the person not already known. When you’ve been married 27 years, this is no easy task.

We recently traveled to our alma mater, David Lipscomb University, to attend Summer Celebration…previously known as the Lipscomb Lectures.  It involves three days of praising God, hearing great speakers, attending Bible classes, and fellowshipping with other Christians.  There’s also a variety of concerts, games, food, and merchandise, along with early morning yoga, fireworks, prayer sessions, and the showing of not-yet-released Christian movies.  I will have more to say about what we learned there in a future blog.

On our journey to Lipscomb, Lil Jan was put in time-out by Candy Crush and decided to launch a round of 3 Questions. One of her questions to me was, “If you could meet any living person and talk to him or her, who would it be?”  This should have been a softball of a question given the 7 billion people alive on Planet Earth today.  But I struggled with it.  In my mind, I changed the question to, “Who are the greatest people living in the world today?”  I then rationally came up with some categories to think through this question (because that’s what ENTJs do).  I’m sure there are some great living scientists and researchers out there, and I would like to think one of them is on the verge of the next great scientific discovery.  But sadly, I couldn’t think of any of their names.  I thought of the greatest sports stars and imagined what it would be like to meet and talk to them.

Big Steve:  “Hey, Lebron, I can’t tell you how excited I am to meet you!”

Lebron:  “Hey, what’s up?”

Big Steve:  “My son, Kyle, loves you.  He defended you even after the disastrous TV special, The Decision, where you announced your intentions to sign with the Heat. Can I have your autograph?”

Lebron:  “Sure.  You play any ball?”

Big Steve:  “I made the All-Star team in 5th grade at Reily Brown Elementary School in Dover, Delaware.  I started at forward and scored 4 points per game.  Then I moved on to Caesar Rodney Junior High but didn’t make the basketball team.  According to the coach, apparently I was “not good enough” and “lacked skills” and should consider “focusing on academics”.  More recently I played a time or two at the school playground with church friends, but had trouble posting up Cliff Latimore.”

Lebron:  “That’s a lot of information, perhaps too much.  Where do you live now?”

Big Steve:  “In a van down by the river.”

Lebron: “Sorry, bro, times are tough.”

My imagined conversations with other “great” people…Bill Gates, Sting, and Tony Romo…turned out just as awkwardly. Actually, the people I most want to meet…the Lewises (C.S. and Meriwether), Steve Jobs, Ronald Reagan, and various biblical characters…are already dead (like our dog, Mandy…moment of silence). I ended up passing on Janet’s question, which felt like striking out in softball.

We thoroughly enjoyed our time at Lipscomb…running into old friends, marveling at how the campus had changed, and reminiscing on our time there two-plus decades earlier. But the highlight for me was on Thursday night, when keynote speaker Dr. Kent Brantly took the stage with Randy Harris to present their thoughts on Revelation 6-11.

Dr. Brantly is impressive in every sense of the word. He had the willpower, intelligence, and dedication to become a medical doctor. More importantly, he has a heart that called him to use his medical training to serve those in the worst situations and conditions. I’m not sure there is a greater medical need or more desperate situation than what is faced by suffering Ebola patients in West Africa. During my military career, there was a common expression that we were expected to “Run to the Sound of the Guns”. Although the natural response is to run away from gunfire, or to remain in your foxhole, we were held to a higher standard.  We, like first responders, were expected to leverage our training and courage and run toward trouble…in order to do something about it.  I suspect Dr. Brantly’s training, courage, servant heart, and love for God called him to run to the sound of the guns…a poverty-stricken, dangerous part of the world full of suffering people whose very lives are on the line. Dr. Brantly answered the call and served faithfully. He saved lives and changed lives. And then he contracted the Ebola virus himself and nearly died from it. God heard the prayers of many and spared Kent Brantly’s life. Since then, Kent has prayed at the National Prayer Breakfast, spoken to the President, Congress and at various other forums, and been named (along with other Ebola-fighting doctors) Time Magazine’s Person of the Year. Dr. Brantly didn’t become a hero by contracting the virus, surviving the virus, or winning an award. He became a hero the moment he decided to risk his life and focus his considerable talent and energy on serving the less fortunate.

Brantley Time
Time got it right.

In Mark 10, James and John let their egos get the best of them and asked Jesus if they could sit at his left and right in heaven.  Their jockeying for status and prominence upset their fellow apostles, and probably broke Jesus’ heart since he had just explained to them that he was about to be mocked, spit on, flogged, and killed.  Rather than rebuke them, Jesus used the situation as a teaching moment.  In verses 43-45, he says, “whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.  For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”  Similarly, in Luke 9 we have an argument started among the disciples as to which of them would be the greatest.  Jesus responded by placing a little child beside them and saying, “Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. For it is the one who is least among you all who is the greatest.”  In both instances, Jesus reminds them that greatness is not about status, popularity, wealth, or any of the other things that society values. Rather, greatness is a designation reserved for those who serve others.

Preaching the Word

When Dr. Brantly took the stage, he spoke about his experiences in Africa and related them to the text in Revelation. He made a lot of great points.  Allow me to paraphrase a few of them…

1. As Christians, we shouldn’t pretend to have all the answers.  We don’t. We can explain some things, but we can’t explain everything. We can tell people the future…you’re going to get old, and sick, and then die…if you’re lucky. That’s an appointment we all will keep.

2. Revelation teaches us that God’s people…Christians…ultimately win because God has already defeated Satan.  However, that doesn’t mean Christians (and others) won’t experience hard times and suffering while here on the earth.  In fact, we should expect difficulty and suffering. Kent knew his time in Africa would be difficult, and he closely identifies with Paul’s sufferings discussed in 2 Corinthians 11. In Africa the locals believe Ebola to be a curse. In a sense they are right because we live in a world which is cursed, as a result of what went down in the Garden of Eden.

3. The low point in Revelation occurs in chapter 11. The powerful, faithful witnesses of the Lord are destroyed, and their enemies gloat over their dead bodies and refuse to bury them (see verses 1-10).  Sounds pretty desperate for the faithful, but you have to keep reading.  Starting in verse 11, “But after the three and a half days the breath of life from God entered them, and they stood on their feet, and terror struck those who saw them. Then they heard a loud voice from heaven saying to them, “Come up here.” And they went up to heaven in a cloud, while their enemies looked on. At that very hour there was a severe earthquake and a tenth of the city collapsed. Seven thousand people were killed in the earthquake, and the survivors were terrified and gave glory to the God of heaven.” So, yes, being a Christian…God’s witness…doesn’t mean everything will be okay in the here and now. We are surrounded by chaos. But the happiest of endings awaits those who remain faithful, even in the face of suffering and chaos.

4. We are called to bear witness and have hope in God in the face of chaos. Kent’s hope didn’t magically make any of his patients recover. Rather, his hope is in a God who is who he says he is and who will do what he says he will do.  He will one day set everything right. God indeed reigns, not through technology or political majority or Supreme Court decisions, but through and as a slaughtered Lamb (Revelation 5:5-6).  Powerful words, my friends.

After the program ended, Lipscomb sponsored an alumni reception and Janet and I had the wonderful privilege to meet Dr. Brantly. He was kind, unassuming, and humble. He told me that his wife would love to travel the country in an RV like Janet and I are doing. He had no “handlers” and no entourage. He is just a quiet, introspective, normal guy. But make no mistake, he is a “great” guy. I know that not because of the things Kent said to the audience or to me that evening, but by the way Kent chooses to live his life. I know that because of the words Jesus gave to his apostles in Mark 10 and Luke 9. Knowing Kent the little that I do, I suspect he would want any talk of “greatness” directed not toward himself, but rather toward the God that created and sustains him. So, we praise God for Kent and for everything that God has done through Kent.

With 2 of my heroes
“Just warning you…you may appear in our blog.”

I look forward to future rounds of “3 Questions” with Lil Jan. And next time around, I hope she will give me another shot at the  question concerning a great living person I’d like to meet. If she does, I will answer, “I already met him, and his name is Dr. Kent Brantly.”

– Big Steve




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Family Time In Franklin: Flatulence, Fireworks, and Finances

We sit in the mud… and reach for the stars.    – Ivan Turgenev

When a Big Steve and a Little Jan love each other very much, a Bigger Steve is brought into the world. I, Steven Kyle Johnson, 21, am that Bigger Steve. That’s right- this blog post was penned by the youngest member of the Johnson clan, and I can only hope that the title alliteration will keep you around long enough to hear me out as a guest writer.

I was able to spend 4 days with my RVing parents in Franklin, TN (outside of Nashville) this past weekend, and wanted to share with you three of the many memories we forged together during this brief visit.


Growing up in a household where Janet raised three male children (Steve, Jason, and myself), I am no rookie when it comes to flatulence. Passing gas was just as much a part of my childhood as boxing tournaments against Jason officiated by Steve when Jan was not home; as developing low self-confidence as a young, overweight soccer player referred to as “The Great Wall of Germany”; and as proclaiming “Heil Hitler!” mid-day in a German town square as my parents watched in horror. Every family member in every family holds his or her own unique flatulence role. In our family, Steve was the most consistent tooter, Jason was the most deadly tooter, Kyle was the most-expected-to-be-the-worst-but-in-reality-tooted-the-least tooter, and Jan was the tooter who would never own up to the fact that she too, as a human being, was indeed a tooter. Jan, after this weekend, will never be able to say the same.

Kyle Soccer
The Great Wall of Germany

Monday morning comes, and it’s time for a hike, which my parents have made their custom during this new stage of life. The trek across a grassy field and along a river in the forest quickly turned interesting, as the mud on the trail was so thick that at any given point we were at high risk of slipping in the muck, sliding down into the mighty river, and never again being able to taste of Uncle Vin’s exquisite cereal collection. After about 15 minutes of slowly maneuvering, almost slipping multiple times, and Jan asking if we could abandon this newfound mud crusade, the inevitable happened: The Janetor took a major tumble. I had a front row view of my dear mother losing her balance, yelping as only Jan can yelp, and slamming down her rear end right into the mud. If that was not already humorous enough (she was not injured, of course), one of my all-time favorite Janny Boo moments occurred– she starts ripping some powerful wind. I mean, some major air tulips were being planted right there in the mud. In ten years, Jan will completely deny flatulating and I will likely accuse her of ripping about 10 squeakers, but in reality it was a solid 3 or 4 ground rumblers released. It was beautiful- Dad and I laughed and cried for a solid minute, before we proceeded to actually help up Miss Toots-A-Lot.

Some Gunk on the Trunk

Why, then, did I just write this long-winded (pun intended) story about my mother falling and tooting? 1) To prove I can also write verbose stories like Big Steve. 2) To enjoy the opportunity to write run-on sentences. 3) To show that it is memories like this one- unexpected, strange, even embarrassing memories- that you cherish forever. Reminisce on your favorite family moments, and recall if any one of them was planned in an agenda or was even supposed to happen. Plan for the future, plan an awesome vacation, plan a game night with the family- but don’t be surprised when the memories you value the most happen after a tumble on a muddy trail in Franklin, TN. Embrace, and celebrate, unexpected memories.

4th of July–Downtown Franklin TN


When it pours down rain on July 4th, July 5th becomes a much more exciting day. In the Franklin neighborhood where we were staying, they were unable to shoot off their thousands of dollars of fireworks due to the weather. So on the 5th we sat outside in our chairs at 8:50pm and prepared for the 9:15pm show. But… 9:15 came, and there were no fireworks. We were growing tired of watching punk teenagers shoot baby fireworks at each other and at our dog, we were being bit by bugs (Jan would find a tick on her the next morning), and we were worried that they had already started and we were just not looking in the right spot. As patience was dwindling, and some of us were considering turning in, our poor attitudes were smacked in the face with the sweet sound of the legendary 2010 pop song, “Firework”. I glanced over at DJ Big Steve and the lit iPhone in his lap, and saw a sly smile growing on his face, as he slowly mouthed the words along with Katy Perry. Caught in a moment of growing tension and disappointment, Big Steve did what Big Steve has always done- something small to lighten the mood.

The decision to play this song might seem really insignificant to you, and even lame in comparison to Jan’s tooting story, but it represented something I have always valued in my dad and in all people who practice this principle: Make the best out of every situation. If you’re trying to watch fireworks on July 5th and it’s not working out, make a really lame DJ move that makes everyone smile. If tensions are running high at work, school, church, home, etc.- make a joke and make others, and yourself, laugh. e.e. Cummings once wrote, “The most wasted of all days is one without laughter.” No matter how hard a day or week has been, I believe there is always something to take joy in and chuckle at. I believe God created us with a sense of humor to help us get through this tough life a little bit easier. Take yourself a little bit less seriously, and I think you’ll find you can take serious things a little bit easier. And oh, by the way, the Franklin fireworks show started by the end of the song, and it was well worth the wait.


I’ll make this last one quick- because this whole Johnson thing where I talk too much is catching up to my word count. Over the course of the weekend, I spent probably 4 hours talking to Stevie-Boy about finances, which at first sounds, well… awful. I will graduate from college in 10 months, and know very little about how to responsibly manage money, so I was asking a billion questions and he was patiently answering as many as he could. His wise approach was basically this: “Do what you want, but this worked for me so maybe do this, and that didn’t work for me so maybe don’t do that.” It struck me how similar an approach we all have to take when sharing wisdom or sharing our own personal stories. None of us are perfectly wise…Big Steve doesn’t know everything about money, Lil Jan doesn’t know everything about marriage or hiking in mud, I know very little about everything, and you are not omniscient, either. But God works through our lives and graces us with a fair understanding of certain things, and ultimately God co-authors the story each of us is writing. I think one of the best things we can do is to share wisdom with a child, friend, stranger, or whoever based on the story God has written for each of us. My favorite author Donald Miller wrote the following: “I asked God to help me understand the story of the forest and what it means to be a tree in that story.” I hope and pray you find your role as a tree in God’s forest. And when you do, I hope you will tell other trees about your experiences. As for me, this weekend I was grateful to God for being the son of two tree bloggers who live in an RV down by the river.

– Kyle Johnson

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A Bridge to Racial Harmony

Friends for Life

“You’ve got to go where the fish are,” Clarence said as we headed across Greenwood Lake in his fishing boat. “And the fish are likely under that bridge, so that’s where we’re headed.” He steered the boat toward the bridge as Raymond (my father-in-law) and I sat in the back finishing off our sausage biscuits.

I’ve heard a lot about the sad state of race relations in our country. I’ve taught United States History to high school students, with subjects ranging from slavery to civil rights to economic disparity. I’ve seen news reports about protests and rioting following real or perceived acts of police brutality. I’ve seen commentaries either for or against the display of the Confederate flag. I’m aware of “black churches” and other churches which are entirely white. Same goes for neighborhoods. I’ve pondered why a Black History Month is a good thing while a White History Month would be frowned upon. I have been shocked by racial stereotypes and at other times have been guilty of them. Race can be a complicated thing.


As we approached the narrow gap between the water and the bottom of the bridge, Clarence told me to get as low in the boat as possible. When I considered the narrow passage, clearance height, and my own size, I lay back in the boat as far as I could, quietly said my goodbyes, and prepared to die. As we passed under the first beam, I looked like Neo dodging bullets in The Matrix movie. I was close enough to kiss the beam, but chose not to because it was covered in spiders and my fellow fisherman might have considered that weird. We miraculously cleared the first beam and I proudly sat up just as two fleeing pigeons buzzed me. Clarence told me to get back down because the next beam was approaching. As I quickly lowered myself into the narrow gap between the two seats and placed my head on the tackle box, I reminded myself that fishing is fun. I regretted eating two sausage biscuits that morning, and not having taken Mrs. Whitley’s yoga class during Teacher Appreciation Week earlier this year. But I managed to clear the second beam and, as cars roared by on the bridge above us, Raymond said, “Alrighty, let’s catch some fish.”

I don’t know whether race relations are getting better or worse in our country. The optimist in me says things have certainly improved since the times of slavery and even since the incredible racial strife of the 1960s. The pessimist in me notes that, too often, people choose their friends and perhaps even their politicians based more on skin color than on the content of their character. Clearly, we still have a long way to go.

As for Raymond and Clarence, my fishing buddies under the bridge, allow me to give you their back-stories. On the surface, these two men have very little in common. Raymond, an 81-year-old white man, was born in Roellen, Tennessee, and attended college at Freed-Hardeman University. He served in the Army for two years, but spent most of his life preaching the Gospel at congregations in Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, and the Carolinas.  He also served for many years as a missionary, primarily in India. Clarence, a 61-year-old black man, was born in Whitmire, South Carolina, and pursued a career teaching Health and Physical Education and coaching baseball and football. He was quite a talented pitcher himself, having been drafted by the Chicago Cubs, but chose not to accept their offer because they wanted to use him as a relief pitcher. While pitching for South Carolina State, his roommate on the road was none other than Donnie Shell, who would later become an All-Pro NFL strong safety and member of the Steelers famed Steel Curtain defense of the 1970s.

Raymond, the Army years
Raymond, the Army years
Clarence, the college years
Clarence, the college years

It would seem Raymond and Clarence have little in common. They are twenty years apart in age. They are different races, pursued different career paths, and were blessed with different talents. If that weren’t enough, they live in South Carolina, home of the Confederate flag controversy and its fair share of racial strife. And yet, in spite of all that, Raymond and Clarence are not just good friends…they are best friends. For the past fifteen years, they have formed a friendship that is as deep and strong as any you will ever run across. Like an old married couple, they can anticipate each other’s actions and finish each other’s sentences. They would do anything for the other, to include donating an organ or taking a bullet. Their friendship is a special thing to witness. Everyone would be blessed to have at least one friendship as deep and fulfilling as this one.

So how do we explain such a close friendship in a society so torn apart by racism? I would attribute it to two things:

1.  They share a common bond as brothers in Christ. They share a love for God first and foremost, and then a love for their fellow man, regardless of race. Acts 10:34 tells us that God does not show partiality, and Galatians 3:28 reminds us that we are all one in Christ Jesus. While many can read and understand these verses, Raymond and Clarence seem to have taken them to heart.

2.  They share a common passion for fishing. Rather than focus on the potential issues or activities that could divide them, they choose to focus on an activity that brings them together. When they are together under the bridge reeling in fish, all is right in the universe.

After clearing the beams, we threw our lines in the water and began a great day of fishing under the bridge, ultimately hauling in 27 fish. We engaged in some friendly banter over the relative sizes of fish that we caught, and shared some stories about fishing and life. I learned that on their weekly fishing trips, Clarence prefers catching a lot of fish while Raymond prefers hooking “the big one”. I learned about the time Clarence made a prank phone call to Raymond, disguising his voice and asking Raymond to marry him and his girlfriend “because that girl loves me a lot!” (Raymond politely refused.) I learned about the time there was a water moccasin on the shore near the boat and Clarence asked Raymond to kill it. As Raymond wildly swung a paddle at the snake, Clarence was sure he was going to either fall out of the boat or hit Clarence in the head with the paddle. According to Clarence, the snake wasn’t phased a bit. Each story seemed to have two versions, and I suspect the truth lay somewhere in between.







The realist in me says we will always have racial problems in this country, just like we’ll always have crime and poverty. Racism and prejudice are not just problems that get solved and then we move on to something else. But I do believe race relations can improve, and I believe it begins not in big government programs, but in individual relationships like the one between Raymond and Clarence. These men overlooked whatever differences might have divided them, and forged a friendship based on a common bond in Christ and a love for fishing. This is not just an ordinary friendship but a friendship for the ages…the kind each of us should get to experience at least once in our lives.

A lot of good things can happen under a bridge on Greenwood Lake in the middle of South Carolina. Not all of them involve fishing.

Big Steve

One who has unreliable friends soon comes to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother. - Proverbs 18:24
One who has unreliable friends soon comes to ruin,
but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.                – Proverbs 18:24


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45 Ways to Enhance Worship

One of the benefits of full-time RVing is getting to worship God in a variety of settings and getting to hear God’s Word preached from many different perspectives. We also get to see the unique, creative, and innovative ways that different congregations accomplish the different elements of organized worship. We hope to occasionally share some “best practices” along with inspirational, challenging, or otherwise helpful lessons that we come across on our journey.

On June 14th we worshipped with the church of Christ at Cedar Lane in Tullahoma, TN. Steven Hovater, their preacher, spoke that morning about 45 ways to enhance the worship experience. Ideally, worshipping God would always be inspiring and meaningful…and we’d always give it our all. But, like everything else in life, it’s possible to sometimes lose our focus a bit and begin going through the motions. What should be inherently inspiring can become routine.

Here, then, are 45 ways to give your organized worship a booster shot. Some are more useful than others. Some you’ll reject outright. But hopefully a few of Brother Hovater’s suggestions, as paraphrased below, will be helpful.

  1. Come with a listening spirit. Have ears ready to hear what will be offered from Scripture. Have an attitude that God is about to communicate something important to me and I need to be listening for it.
  2. Come early. Give yourself time to settle in and prepare for what is about to happen. Rushing in at the last minute or arriving late sends the wrong message.
  3. Stay late. Give your conversation with people time to breathe. Have more to say than “hi” and “good to see you”.
  4. Unplug. Leave your phone at home or turn it off. You can check the news and weather and send texts when you are through.
  5. Plug-in. Yes, this contradicts #4; but, rather than be distracted by technology, use it to engage others. Tweet/Facebook/Instagram things that thoughtfully struck you about the service/lesson.
  6. Move. Sit closer to the front or further back, or on a different side of the building. This will help you to meet new people and have a different vantage point of the service.
  7. Sleep well/long the night before. Come rested and ready to worship.
  8. Expand your scope. Think about other Scriptures, Bible stories, and songs that might support the lesson theme.
  9. Receive a song. Don’t sing a song, but let the family sing it to you. Hear their hearts. (Of course, don’t do this for every song!)
  10. Turn up the volume. Sing louder than you are comfortable. This encourages others around you to sing out.
  11. Be hospitable. Welcome people, especially visitors, like they are guests in your home.
  12. Read ahead. Meditate on the sermon text (possibly found in the bulletin) or some other Scripture before worship begins.
  13. Take notes. Take notes about everything, not just the lesson…communion devotional, favorite song, prayer list, etc. Writing in general helps disentangle our thoughts.
  14. Be physical. Worship with your body. Consider your posture.
  15. Stretch. Intentionally wake your body for worship beforehand. Get the blood flowing.
  16. Talk in church. If a particular song or sermon point or something else had an impact on you, lean over and share that with your neighbor. This doesn’t mean carrying on a 20-minute conversation.
  17. Talk back. Appropriate responses at the appropriate time (Amen, Yes, Alright, That’s right, Come on, etc.) Most preachers appreciate the feedback and encouragement.
  18. Pray for God’s Spirit to work. Pray for yourself and pray for others that have heard the lesson. Pray that you or someone else will be touched by the service in some way.
  19. Smile at children. Learn their names. Help them know that this place is home to them; that they belong here.
  20. Write at least one thing down. Something significant about the sermon, a song, communion, or a conversation you had. What’s the one biggest thing you took away from this experience?
  21. Don’t be a critic. Worship is not the movies, not a show to be judged or rated. We are there to worship God, not be entertained.
  22. Sing to someone. Give the song to someone else. Think about someone else as you are singing a song.
  23. Sing the words. Pronounce the words; understand the words. Don’t just regurgitate lyrics.
  24. Fast.  The huge breakfast just prior to worship may not always be the best approach.
  25. Sketch. Capture something meaningful with an image.
  26. Commune with intent. Seriously think about each aspect of the communion with the Lord and the worship service.
  27. Attend to the absent. Notice who wasn’t present. Send them a card or call them to let them know they were missed. Give them a short synopsis of the sermon.
  28. Debrief. Talk about the service and lessons learned with others (not critically). Ask your spouse or children what was the most important thing they learned.
  29. Practice. If there was a song you didn’t know, work on it throughout the week.
  30. Recreate the text in your memory. Try to write down or verbalize what the main Scripture reference was word for word. Then decide what’s missing that you didn’t recall.
  31. See anew. Enter the worship assembly as if it was your first time to worship God. Reflect for a moment on what it means to be in the presence of God.
  32. Pick a hymn. Take one of the hymns that was sung and sing it throughout the week.
  33. Pre-pray the order of worship. When you arrive, look over the bulletin worship schedule and pray for those presiding.
  34. Seek the Lord. Think about how God has been revealed through the worship. As you depart, ask yourself, “Where did I see/feel God today?”
  35. Free your worship tone. Allow your worship to have a range of emotions (laugh, cry, reflect, nostalgic, etc.)
  36. Surrender. Come in and allow the lesson or worship experience to create problems in your life. Let it convict you of something awry in your life.
  37. Explore the places of worship. Think about each act of worship and its significance.
  38. Shift perspective. Worship with someone else’s mindset. How might my son/mother/friend be receiving this message?
  39. Consider God’s character. Encounter a God who is love.
  40. Own worship. Don’t let somebody else worship for you. Don’t think worship is just for those leading the worship service.
  41. Keep a worship journal. How is worship shaping you?
  42. Connect the dots. How is today’s worship service connected to your past, present and future?
  43. Prepare to be prepared. Become malleable. Allow the worship experience to change you.
  44. Accept the sending. Imagine each week is your missionary send-off.
  45. Fully engage. Leave all outside thoughts at the door and fully focus on what is happening.

We are called to worship God in spirit and in truth (John 4:24). We hope you can find a few items on this list to enhance your worship experience. If you have additional suggestions, please post them in the comments section.

Lil Jan and Big Steve

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