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October 21, 2018

For three Tuesday night in October, I have been teaching the Citizenship in the Nation merit badge to a dozen or so Scouts. The requirements require these young Americans to read the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States. The merit badge places an emphasis on our rights and our responsibilities as American citizens. One of our duties is the responsibility to vote.

“Democracy is being allowed to vote for the candidate you dislike least” is a quote attributed to Mark Twain.  Someone once asked my grandfather who he was going to vote for in a presidential election.  His comment was, “I’ve hardly ever been able to vote for anybody.  I almost always have to vote against somebody.”

An important election is approaching. This political contest is serious, yet, like all political events, it is in some ways quite comic. The comedians of America have played a significant role in the campaign that precedes the election. The candidates have been the subjects of stand-up routines and half-hour satires. Some have appeared on late-night talk shows. “Saturday Night Live” features regular spoofs of both Democrats and Republicans.  Comedy has been a significant force as voters make their decisions.

Beginning in the year 2000 Time magazine has published a special issue. In the past “The Making of America” series has featured Lewis and Clark, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy. The seventh annual issue featured Mark Twain, the first American writer to achieve the kind of fame normally accorded presidents and generals.

Writing for Time in an article in 2008, Roy Blount, Jr. called Mark Twain our original American superstar. Like current talk show hosts Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Fallon, Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Kimmel, Seth Myers, Trevor Noah, and James Corden, Mark Twain also helped the folks of his day laugh at serious issues.

Roy Blount was quick to remind us that this stinging satire is not new. Ernest Hemingway said all modern American literature could be traced back to Mark Twain. With his white suit, cigar, disheveled hair, and bushy moustache, Twain was the first political comedian, the master of one-liners. “Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated,” he said, after his obituary mistakenly appeared in the New York Journal.

“As it happens, many of the issues of our day were also the issues of Twain’s day,” writes Blount, “and he addressed them as eloquently as anyone has since.”

Andrew Carnegie once remarked to Mark Twain that America is a Christian nation. “Why, Carnegie,” Twain answered, “so is Hell.”

Twain had a talent for detecting hypocrisy. His irreverence could be edgy. While it was funny, it was unsettling.

The motto “In God We Trust” first appeared on United States coins in 1864. Mark Twain was 29 years old at the time.  Three years before Twain’s death in 1910, President Teddy Roosevelt shocked the nation by declaring that “In God We Trust” should be removed from United States coins because they “carried the name of God into improper places.”

In conversation with Andrew Carnegie, Twain quipped that “In God We Trust” was a fine motto, “simple, direct, gracefully phrased; it always sounds well – In God We Trust. I don’t believe it would sound any better if it were true.”

Mark Twain came from America’s heart.  He made Americans laugh, especially at themselves.

In the special edition of Time that featured Twain, Richard Lacayo wrote of an exchange between Twain and the British poet and culture critic Matthew Arnold. After making two visits to the United States to observe American customs, Arnold eventually wrote his impressions in the book Civilization in the United States.

Troubled by the way Americans appeared to lack any capacity for reverence toward those in authority, Arnold wrote, “If there be a discipline in which the Americans are wanting, it is the discipline of awe and respect.”

One institution of American life that struck Arnold as improper was what he called “the addiction to the funny man, who is a national misfortune there.” Six years earlier, he had attacked in his writings the most famous American funny man of all, Mark Twain.

Offended by Arnold’s words, Twain prepared a reply.  Though never published, it includes the single best one-line defense of how a democratic society works. “A discriminating irreverence,” he wrote, “is the creator and protector of human liberty.”

Lacayo wrote of Twain, “He was plain speaking and had the kind of deadly wit that could cut through the cant and hypocrisy surrounding any topic, no matter how sensitive: war, sex, religion, even race. Twain was righteous without being pious, angry for all the right reasons and funny in all the right ways. You might say he gave virtue a good name.”

Tuesday, November 6, is Election Day.  By almost anyone’s estimation, we will again see closely contested election in many quarters. Many voting in this year’s election will remember when the United States learned that every vote counts. Harry Truman narrowly won the office of President in 1948.

I am awaiting the end of the campaign.  Most of the country is ready to make a decision and then to move forward.  We have all experienced an overload of rhetoric.

Mark Twain understood how important it is for people of faith to vote. Again criticizing Christians, Twain wrote in the September 2, 1904, edition of Collier’s, “If more Americans could be persuaded to vote, it would bring about a revolution that would be incalculably beneficent.  It would save the country.”

Until Election Day, I am going to try to become a more informed voter. I am also going to laugh at all the jokes and impersonations.

On Election Day, I plan to eat a good breakfast. I will pray for this country and those we will elect. I will drive out in the county to my voting place, a picturesque old schoolhouse in Whitestone, South Carolina. I will wait patiently for my turn, glad for the large voter turnout. Once behind a curtain, I will make my selection, keeping whom I cast my vote for or against to myself. It is, after all, a secret ballot. I will be grateful that I enjoy the freedom to do so.

I learned long ago that prayer and humor are first cousins. We pray and we laugh about what is most important in our lives. So I intend to approach this important election with a prayer in my heart and a smile on my face. Both Mark Twain and the Almighty would approve.

The Scouts in my merit badge class are too young to vote. I am trying to teach them as well as my own grandchildren. As always, the very best teaching to teach by example. I am going to vote because I cherish this freedom. I am going to vote because I love this country. I am going to vote because I see in the eyes of young Americans the hope for the future of this country. I am going to vote. I would urge you to do the same.



October 12, 2018

Clare and I enjoyed a meal at a local eatery in early October.  As we finished our meal, I noticed two ladies standing at the checkout. While waiting to pay their tab, they examined a display of brooms placed near the door by the local Lion’s Club. The available selections featured brooms of various sizes and prices.

“You need a broom for Halloween,” one said to the other.

“Are you saying I’m a witch?” her companion asked.

“I’m just saying, you need a broom.”

“I haven’t been called a witch lately, but something close to that.”

“Yeah, me, too. Maybe we both need a broom.”

I thought about witches I have known. When I was growing up there was an old woman who lived way down beyond my house where the pavement ended and the road turned to red dirt. She had a big, black cast-iron pot in her yard and several mean dogs. One day I walked down there by myself. I heard a shotgun blast. I was pretty sure she shot at me. I thought she might have been a witch.

When I was in high school English class, I encountered three witches as characters in William Shakespeare’s play Macbeth. I can still remember their chant.

Double, double toil and trouble;

Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

At Halloween, the image of witches riding across the sky on magical broomsticks is common. Where did the notion that witches ride brooms originate? It developed during the witchcraft hysteria, with subsequent mass executions, beginning in the early 16th Century in Europe.

Rye was the bread of the common folk. It was a staple in every home.  Rye bread that aged became host to a mold called ergot. In high doses, ergot could be lethal. In smaller doses, it became quite popular among herbalists as a cure. It’s mentioned in the plays of Shakespeare and in writings from the witchcraft age.

Medicinal preparations made from ergot helped to relieve migraine headaches by constricting the swollen blood vessels that caused the pain. One ergot derivative was also useful in preventing hemorrhaging following childbirth by causing uterine muscles to contract. It was also used to ease menstrual difficulties.

Some ancient herbalists applied ergot ointment to the female body using a smooth stick, as, for example, a broomstick. However, ergot is also a source of LSD and the hallucinogenic effects are powerful. Women who were given this treatment often experienced altered states of consciousness including fanciful flights. Some who observed women under the influence of the drug were convinced that the women were possessed by demons and therefore they were thought to be witches. So brooms, magical flights, and witches became connected in the public mind.

Novelist J. K. Rowling gave us the high-tech broomstick in her popular fantasies about Harry Potter. The first broomstick Harry owned was the Nimbus Two Thousand. The amazing transport allowed Harry to fly through the air, especially in Quidditch matches. But in a competition at Hogwarts in Harry’s third year, he was attacked by Dementors. Rendered unconscious, Harry fell off his broom. The errant Nimbus flew into the Whomping Willow. The tree objected to being hit and smashed Harry’s broom to bits. Later in the epic tale, Harry’s godfather, Sirius Black, replaced the Nimbus with a Firebolt, a considerable upgrade in the broomstick world.

My most recent encounter with a witch was in a television commercial for GEICO insurance. A witch with a sinister laugh flies around a broom manufacturing plant. She stops to snag a fresh broom from one of the intimidated employees and continues her giddy flight. Two guys, one playing the mandolin, the second a guitar, croon that those who choose GEICO insurance are happier than a witch in a broom factory.

The commercial raises a question about the manufacture of brooms.

Brooms have been used for centuries to sweep caves, campsites, cabins, and castles. In America, making brooms is considered a heritage craft. All American brooms were handmade prior to the eighteenth century.  They were unrefined round brooms made from fibrous materials such as grass, straw, hay, fine twigs, or corn husks.  The broom sweep was tied onto a handle made from a tree branch. Cordage used to tie the broom was woven from hemp and flax. Homemade brooms swept clean the floor and the hearth, but they fell apart easily.

In 1797 a Massachusetts farmer, Levi Dickenson, made a broom for his wife. He used the tassels left over from his harvested sorghum.  His version swept better than others. Dickson started making brooms for his neighbors.

After the invention of the foot-treadle broom machine in 1810, broom shops appeared in many communities. Like the Lion’s Club display at the restaurant, customers were offered a choice of buying a small handled broom for use in tight areas around the fireplace or a long-handled one to sweep the open wood or dirt floors in their homes.

The less ornate craftsmanship of the Shakers changed the design of the round broom in the mid-1820′s.  They eliminated the woven stems up the handle and introduced wire to bind their brooms to the handle.  Using a vise to press the broom flat, it was stitched with linen cord.

By1830, the United States was producing enough brooms to export to other countries in South America and in Europe. The American broom industry thrived until 1994 when foreign brooms were permitted to be imported into the United States, duty-free.

Brooms play an important role in southern legend and lore. Jumping over the broom is a euphemism for marriage. The exact origin of the custom is uncertain. A commonly held belief is that the practice has roots in Africa. However, there are no recorded instances of African weddings that involved jumping over a broom.

What is certain is that brooms were spiritual symbols in some African regions. In Ghana, brooms were waved above the heads of newlyweds and their parents.

Some anthropologists believe that jumping over the broom at weddings was first known in Wales, originating either among the Welsh people themselves or among gypsies living in Wales. If so, the custom must have come to the colonies through Welsh settlers and then transferred to the slaves of the South. When a couple jumps over the broom together, their marriage is confirmed, and they will enjoy a good life together.

The Irish have a saying worth remembering. “A new broom sweeps clean, but the old broom knows the corners”

My grandmother used to say, “Never take an old broom to a new house.” This may explain the southern custom of giving a new broom as a housewarming gift.

Recently, one of our grandsons was helping me sweep the back porch. I used a grandfather-size broom; he used a child’s broom. I was reminded of a couple of old broom superstitions.

  • Always sweep dirt out the back door, or you will sweep away your best friend.
  • When a child takes a broom and begins to sweep, company is coming.

About that time my grandson’s parents showed up to take him home.

There must be at least a grain of truth in the old legends.


October 6, 2018

The world is filled with cat lovers. From ancient Egypt where they were first domesticated to the exotic Persian cats, the animals have been revered. They are thought to be the most popular pets in the world. Many of our friends are cat people, some have cats living in their homes – the very definition of a house cat.

Composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber, the Broadway musical Cats opened on Broadway in 1982. The production won numerous awards including a Tony as the best musical. As of this year, it is the fourth longest-running musical in Broadway history.

Suffice it to say, many people love and enjoy cats. Some do not.

I am fascinated by the big cats on the National Geographic television channel. I enjoy watching the Panthers, the Lions, the Bengals, and the Jaguars of the National Football League.  I can tolerate cats around the house as long as they stay outside, hunt rodents for their keep, and leave the birds alone.

Since we married Clare and I have pretty much agreed that cats were not our favorite pets. Clare just downright does not like cats, inside or out.

I have learned that when Clare senses something is amiss, I need to pay attention to her. While house hunting in Winston-Salem, we visited one picturesque abode. We got no further than the front door when Clare said, “Yuck! The previous family had cats! Many cats!”

We purchased a different home, further out in the country near the old Moravian settlement of Pfafftown, North Carolina. We had no sooner moved into our new domicile when our first visitor appeared on our doorstep. He was a very large cat, as white as Martha White’s self-rising flour, and as wild as a March Hare. We were told by neighbors that the cat belonged to the previous owners of the house.

I made the mistake of feeding leftovers to the feline, and he stayed around for the seven years we lived there. I named him the Kentucky Wildcat, though we resided in the heart of Atlantic Coast basketball territory. In the seven years, we had Kentucky, I never laid a hand on him. I never could get close enough even to scratch his ears. He possessed the disconcerting habit of darting across my path when I went outside on dark nights. Though I half expected his surprise appearances, he never failed to startle me.

I saw Kentucky for the last time on the day we moved away. I thought of trying to take him with us but he was simply not available. It seemed only right. I really had never owned him. I doubt he ever had a real owner.

Clare often wears two pairs of glasses. Her prescription lenses are perched on her nose and a pair of reading glasses is at the ready on top of her head. But her unaided eyesight is amazing. She can spot a dead bug on our basement floor at thirty paces. She can see a stain on my shirt and identify the source before I am even aware of the blemish. She carries a Tide laundry stick in her purse, just to keep me presentable.

My wife’s hearing is equally sensitive. Several years ago, on a rainy night during a booming thunderstorm, Clare thought she heard a baby crying. I, of course, heard nothing. But I have learned to pay attention when Clare senses something strange. As I listened, I heard only rumbling thunder, whistling wind, and pounding rain.

“I hear something that sounds like a baby crying,” Clare insisted. I listened more closely, and I heard what she had heard.

I went out into the storm to investigate. Sure enough, Clare was right! It was a baby crying – a baby kitten.

I reported my find. “Don’t bring that cat into this house!” she instructed.

I heeded her warning. Again, I have never regarded myself as a cat person. Dogs are more to my liking. At the same time, I felt compelled to provide some comfort for the black and white foundling. The little kitten had obviously become separated from her mother during the storm. I could not be sure how old the kitten was. She was so small I could hold her in the palm of one hand.

Placing an old towel in a garden basket, I made a bed for the tiny trembling stray. Cold, wet, hungry, and frightened, she continued to cry. She even tried to nurse my little finger in search of milk. That didn’t work.

I called a good friend, a retired veterinarian, who gave me sound guidance.

“You found her, Kirk. She’s your responsibility. You’ll have to become her mother.”

At a local pet store, I purchased a formula substitute for mother’s milk. The little orphan lapped it up and promptly fell asleep in the crook of my arm. As I have said, I am not really a cat person, but I had become the unexpected caretaker of a kitten.

Our daughter named the cat. “She was delivered to your porch by a thunderstorm. You have to name her Stormy.” So, Stormy she is. Little did I know then that the name Stormy would later become associated with a national scandal, as in Stormy Daniels.

My veterinarian friend advised me on immunizations and on the proper time to have her spayed. Those health issues were taken care of by the good folks at our local animal shelter. Now, when I take Stormy to have her shots, my friend Roger goes with me. Believe it or not, it takes two grown men to corral the small cat into a crate to transport her to the vet.

My responsibilities are relatively few. I make sure Stormy has her regular ration of food, that her water bowl is freshly filled each day, and that she has a routine tick and flea treatment. I also take a little time to scratch her ears. When I sit down on a favorite bench in the yard near the tree of life, Stormy still enjoys climbing into my lap for a snooze. I, who am not really a cat person, enjoy that, too.

Stormy has made herself at home in our garden. She quickly found the patch of catnip and enjoys a daily tumble in the fragrant foliage. She has her favorite lookout posts and napping places. She has climbed most of the trees in our garden and knows how to descend as well as ascend each one.

Early in our relationship, Stormy and I reached an agreement. She is free to stalk and capture any varmint that crosses the estate. However, she is under strict orders to leave the birds alone. She does have to be reminded.

We have been gifted with a variety of relics at our front door. These have included an assortment of deceased moles, voles, mice, and chipmunks, and at least three gray squirrel tails. I don’t know what she did with the other end of the squirrels. Perhaps there are three tailless squirrels still bounding through our tree branches.

Late one night, I heard the sounds of a major catfight. Actually, Stormy had cornered a possum. She wasn’t quite sure what to do with the critter, so I ran it off with a pickax handle I keep close by for just such occasions.

As far as I can tell the bird casualties have been limited to one starling. Honestly, I wasn’t a bit upset by the demise of the pesky starling. Stormy is a discerning cat.

In one corner of our garden, I have a cast-iron chiminea that I bought from a fellow in Commerce, Georgia. Sometimes on cool nights, I build a small fire in the rusty stove. Stormy ventures over to check me out. Then, just like she did when she was a little kitten, she will hop on my lap. I am not really a cat person, but I scratch her ears. Stormy purrs, and we enjoy watching the dying embers together.


September 30, 2018

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd is a remarkable read.. The book, best described as historical fiction, is set in Charleston, South Carolina, in the early nineteenth century. It is inspired by the true story of Sarah and Angelina Grimké, early leaders in the women’s suffrage and the abolitionist movement. The book relates the coming-of-age story of two characters. Sarah is the daughter of a prominent lawyer. Hetty is a slave assigned to Sarah. Neither is a wilting magnolia. Both are determined women, each with a strong defiant streak. I am not surprised that questions of God and Christian ethics arise throughout the novel.

Years ago, even while I was a seminary student, I realized that some of the best theology is not written by theologians. Works of fiction often require the reader to struggle with religious as well as moral issues. Theology and ethics are best learned through enrolling in the proverbial college of hard knocks. Fiction is one of the best ways to tell the truth about life.

Among the more memorable novels with theological themes are Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter (1850), Herman Melville, Moby Dick (1851), Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (1876), Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov (1880), Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury (1929), Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory (1940), Flannery O’Connor, Wise Blood (1952), Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea (1952), J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (1955), Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time (1962), Chaim Potok, My Name is Asher Lev (1972), Toni Morrison, Beloved (1987), and Marilynne Robinson, the trilogy, Gilead (2004), Home (2008), and Lilia (2014). This is a partial list, to be sure, but it is a respectable sampling.

Several years ago, I came across a book title I had never heard of. Talking with the Angels is the true story of four young Hungarians during the Holocaust. Over a seventeen-month period, the four encountered luminous forces that helped them find courage and hope in a time of uncertainty. These angels, as they were described, accompanied the group until three of them met their deaths in Nazi concentration camps. Gitta Mallasz had recorded the instructions given to her in eighty-eight experiences of angelic revelation. Gitta was the only survivor among the friends. Her journals were preserved. After the war Gitta shared these remarkable dialogues with the world through her book. Gitta always rejected any notion that she was the author of the book, saying, “I am merely the scribe of the angels.”

Gitta’s story reminded me of one from my own family

My nephew David Kreswell Suits came into the world in October 1981, the fourth of eight children born to my sister Mamie and her husband, Dr. Steve Suits.  Kres was a twin. His twin brother, William Haynsworth Suits, was stillborn.

Mamie knew immediately that something was wrong with Kres.  He screamed and seemed to shake uncontrollably.  Mamie could do little to console her baby boy. Several pediatricians examined Kres. An older physician suggested that Mamie and Steve take their infant son to a pediatric neurologist for an ultrasound of his brain.

When the results of the scan were revealed, the doctor asked several questions:  “Do you have other children?”

“Yes, answered Mamie, “three.”

“Are they all normal?”

“As normal as they can be,” replied Steve.

After a long pause, the physician advised, “Take this child to a local facility for mentally impaired children.  Leave him there and try to forget that you ever had him.  Go home and take care of your three other children.”

Reluctant to hear more of his advice, Mamie escaped to the restroom.  She stared into the mirror and prayed.

When she returned moments later, she asserted, “Steve, it’s time to take our baby home.”

Mamie and Steve presented Kres to their three older children – Steven, age four, Burk, age three, and Neely, one-and-a-half.  The children greeted their new little brother with love and joy. Mamie knew from that moment that Kres would be a part of their family as long as he lived.

Kres was diagnosed with hydrocephaly.  Quite simply, he had no brain, only a brain stem.  He had no vision. His hearing was extremely limited. He had no motor abilities.  Though Kres lived for twelve years, he was profoundly retarded. His tiny body could not develop.  Caring for him was a constant challenge.

Mamie and Steve welcomed four more children to their family. Mamie commented, “Each time I had another child, it was like having two newborn babies to care for.”

Many times people advised Steve and Mamie to find a place for Kres so that they could provide their other children with the attention they needed.  Mamie simply noted, “Kres was a part of our family.  He was God’s gift to all of us, and he made a profound impact on every one of us.”

I asked Mamie about any high points in the twelve years that she cared for Kres.  She explained that Kres could make no positive response and that every reaction was a cry or a scream except on very rare occasions.

In Mamie’s words, “Once in a while, Kres had a peaceful angelic expression on his face and a very faint smile.  When that happened, I would tell my other children, ‘Kres is talking with the angels.’”

Mamie added, “Just before his twelfth birthday, I went in to check on him.  He had the biggest grin on his face.  It was as if the angels had told him a wonderful secret.”

My parents had the custom of giving each of their forty-six grandchildren a very special present on their twelfth birthday.  When asked what they could give Kres, Mamie and Steve told them that Kres had been accustomed to sleeping on a waterbed.  His brothers loved to bounce on the bed.  It had finally burst.  And so for Kres’ birthday, Mamie suggested that Mom and Dad buy a new waterbed, Kres-size in length.

Dad purchased some fine walnut lumber and asked Ray Harris to build a waterbed frame, countertop height so that Mamie would not have to bend down when tending to Kres.  Ray Harris has been a family friend for many years.  He is a carpenter and a master cabinet maker. The gift was to be ready sometime before Christmas 1993.

Two weeks after his twelfth birthday, November 8, 1993, David Kreswell Suits died.  Dad and I went to the home to be with the family.  Dad stayed with Mamie while I drove Steve to the hospital.  He wanted a physician friend to sign the death certificate.  I will never forget turning in the darkness toward Steve who was in the passenger’s seat.  As he cradled his tiny twelve-year-old son in his arms, I saw that rare smile on Kres’ face that Mamie had mentioned. I thought He’s talking with the angels. Steve and I both wept tears of grief and tears of joy.

When Mamie found out that the bed frame had not yet been built, she asked Dad, “Could the lumber be used to make a coffin for Kres instead?”

The night before the funeral, Ray Harris stayed up all night long, fashioning a fine walnut casket.  Mama lined the casket with a quilt; one that she had made by hand.

Gathered around Kres’ grave, our thoughts turned to a twelve-year-old boy, so limited in this life, but now made whole.

We were all sure that Kres was talking and singing with the angels.


September 23, 2018

In the aftermath of hurricane Florence, I sat on our screened-in porch, an eyewitness as the end of summer was yielding way to the beginning of fall. Our back porch is a sanctuary. I prayed for the many people affected by the worst storm of 2018 so far. I am keenly aware that hurricane season will last another month.

Emerald hummingbirds with ruby throats fought over places to sip nectar. Purple finches, blackcap chickadees, gray titmice, and bright red cardinals took turns at the black oil sunflower seeds in the feeder suspended over the barn door. A procession of butterflies, including two orange monarchs, fluttered above pink begonias, pausing to sip nectar from the blue flower spikes of yellow and crimson coleus plants. Across the yard, a large yellow tiger swallowtail feasted on late-blooming purple hyssop. A few pale yellow and pink roses put on their final display. The Japanese maple was cloaked in deep red while the weeping cherry was dropping golden leaves in a gentle breeze. So much color! And may I remind you, I am colorblind!

Fall is one of my four favorite times of the year. Sitting on the porch I feel peacefully energized and far more renewed than if I had attended a week-long revival in a country church – far more.  My soul is best restored in quiet solitude.

This is the time when Clare and I often travel up the Saluda Grade for a brief retreat. Fall is the perfect time for these one-day forays into the Blue Ridge. We usually purchase a few pumpkins and several varieties of apples along the way. After a picnic lunch, we sometimes pause to enjoy a Carolina blue sky speckled with only a few high clouds drifting above. The southern Appalachian highlands are all the more exhilarating if there is a nip in the air, and the vast forest is ablaze with color. To perched on the tailgate of my pickup truck at an overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway is better than having a seat on the fifty-yard line at any football game.

The Southern Appalachian Mountains and surrounding foothills are decked out for their annual autumn display. Peak fall colors in our area usually occur from mid-October through early November. Though the mountains are home to more than 100 species of trees, the most colorful foliage comes courtesy of sugar maples, scarlet oaks, sweet gums, red maples, and hickory trees.

Before settling down into winter’s deep sleep, Mother Nature has one last fling, an amazing fashion show, when mountain foliage turns radiant shades of crimson, orange, and purple.

The English poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, celebrated autumn with a rhyme.

The one red leaf, the last of its clan,

That dances as often as dance it can.

The Cherokee Indians have a legend to explain why the leaves change color. It is the tale of a mighty bear that roamed the countryside wreaking havoc. The beast would charge into their villages, eat all their food, destroy their homes, chase away their animals, and frighten the women and children.

Tribal elders held a council and selected the bravest hunters to put an end to the bear. The warriors set out with their dogs and weapons to stalk the marauder. The beast fled. The Indians gave chase. One hunter came close enough to shoot, and an arrow nicked the bear. The injury was not serious, but the culprit ran so fast he escaped up into the sky. The hunters, determined in their chase, ran into the heavens in hot pursuit.

Use your imagination, and you can see the bear depicted in the four stars in the bowl of the Big Dipper. The three stars in the handle of the dipper represent the hunters chasing the bear. The stalkers and their prey go around and around in the northern night sky. Every autumn, the Big Dipper comes low to the horizon. It is then, according to the legend, that the bear’s wound leaks a few drops of blood. According to the legend, the blood of the bear changes the colors of the leaves on the trees.

Those of us who live in the Piedmont are fortunate to enjoy a changing climate. As days shorten and night air becomes crisp, the soothing green canvas of summer foliage is transformed into the breathtaking autumn palette of reds, oranges, yellows, and browns.

Four factors influence autumn leaf color — leaf pigments, length of daylight and darkness, rainfall, and temperatures. The timing of color change is primarily regulated by the increasing length of night hours. As days grow shorter and nights grow longer and cooler, chemical processes in the leaves begin to paint the autumn landscape.

During the growing season, chlorophyll makes leaves appear green. As the length of night increases in the autumn, chlorophyll production slows down and then stops. The pigments that are present in the leaf are then unmasked and the trees show their fall colors.

The timing of the color change also varies by species of trees. Sourwood and tulip poplars in southern forests can become a vivid yellow in late summer while all other species are still green. Oaks put on their colors long after other species have already shed their leaves.

The brilliance of the colors that develop in any particular autumn season is related to weather conditions that occur before and during the time the chlorophyll in the leaves is dwindling. Temperature and moisture are the main influences.

Mythical Jack Frost supposedly brings reds and purples to the forest by pinching the leaves with his icy fingers. The hues of yellow, gold, and brown are mixed in his paint box and applied with quick broad strokes of his brush as he silently moves among the trees decorating them.

Actually, frost does not bring autumn hues. It turns the leaves brown. The most spectacular color displays are brought on by a succession of warm, sunny days and cool, but not freezing, nights. During these days, sugars are produced in the leaf. The cool nights and the gradual closing of veins going into the leaf prevent these sugars from moving out. The combination of sugar and light spurs production of brilliant pigments in the leaves.

The amount of moisture in the soil also affects autumn colors. Like the weather, soil moisture varies greatly from year to year. The countless combinations of these two highly variable factors assure that no two autumns will be exactly alike. A late spring, or a severe summer drought, can delay the onset of fall color. A warm wet spring, favorable summer weather, and warm sunny fall days with cool nights produce the most brilliant autumn colors.

The vivid change of color starts in late September in New England and moves southward, reaching the Blue Ridge Mountains by early November. The foliage in cooler higher elevations will change color before the leaves in the valleys.

I ran into friends in the grocery store, folks who were members of the church I served as pastor for eighteen years. “We’re skipping church this Sunday. We are driving to the mountains.”

You know, I really couldn’t blame them. Clare and I enjoy cruising in any season but especially at this time of year. A day on the Blue Ridge Parkway has always been a refreshing break for both of us.

George Schrieffer, a good friend, is now in heaven. George was a minister with a quick wit and a pleasant disposition. He was a diehard Chicago Cubs fan. He couldn’t sing a lick, but, my goodness, he could whistle. George came up with a short rhyme for the fall season. He was concerned that folks would be tempted to skip church on Sunday to drive to the mountains to see the display. George’s lines of poetry may not be as eloquent as those of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, but they are dear to any pastor’s heart.

The leaves reach their peak

In the middle of the week!

I wonder. What must autumn be like in heaven? Do the leaves change colors? Do the butterflies and the birds migrate? I am not sure, but, for now, I believe the beauty of this season is a brief foretaste of the glory to be experienced on the other side.  It must be, well, just glorious.

Yes, glorious!


September 21, 2018

When we think of grapes, we usually think of varieties imported from European countries.  But North America also has its own native grapes. They grew wild long before Europeans settled these shores. In fact, some have speculated that the reason the first Norse explorers called North America Vineland was that the Vikings discovered these grapes. That is doubtful since their visit seems to have been limited to what is now Newfoundland. These North American grapes are indigenous to the South.

Early colonists were amazed by the abundance of grapes growing on the East Coast. Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe, when exploring the Carolinas for Sir Walter Raleigh in 1584, described the American landscape as, “so full of grapes that in all the world the like abundance is not to be found.”

The grapes that these men discovered were Muscadine Scuppernongs. Wine made from them was sent as a gift to Queen Elizabeth I. Later colonists were required to cultivate native grapes. The fruit was used to make jelly, jam, juice, and wine.

I remember picking scuppernongs as a boy from a vine in my grandparents’ backyard. On a trip to the Lowcountry of South Carolina, Mammy dug up the plant from her childhood home. Pappy built an arbor using rough heart pine lumber. I recall plucking the fruit right off the vine with my Uncle Wesley. Eleven years older than I, Uncle Wesley taught me to suck the sweet pulp from the large grapes and spit out the husk and the seeds. There was a drawback. Yellowjackets swarmed around the fruit that hung from the vines as well as the scuppernongs that had fallen to the ground. The stinging insects were attracted to the sweetness much as we were.

In 1980, when Clare and I moved into the house built by my grandfather in 1937, we inherited the enormous scuppernong vine. The old arbor still supported the plant. The main vine was nearly three feet in circumference. Branches, pruned many times over the years, stretched to more than ten feet over the arbor and draped to the ground. In the fall, the vine was covered with delicious wild grapes as it had been in my youth. Some in the family called it a muscadine; others a scuppernong. Some neighbors mixed the two words calling the grapes scuffadines. It was, in fact, a scuppernong, a true native Carolina plant.

Before Clare and I added fencing to our property, we often saw total strangers standing beneath the vine, buckets in hand, gathering the sweet wild grapes. Our attitude was that there was more than enough of the fruit for everybody to share.

Last Saturday morning, I stopped by Bellew’s Market. On a table, near the back of the store, I saw the most luscious Southern grapes I had seen in a long time. The plump bronze scuppernongs and glistening black muscadines were grown locally. The fruit is primarily for home use, though there are many small farmers who produce the grapes commercially.

When early European explorers landed on the Atlantic coast the bronze or purple-black fruit was growing profusely throughout what is now the southeastern United States. The name scuppernong is from the Algonquian word ascopo meaning sweet tree. The Native Americans of the southeast enjoyed the grapes long before Europeans entered this land. The Scuppernong River in Eastern North Carolina is named for the vines growing along its banks.

Florentine explorer Giovanni de Verrazzano first mentioned a white grape in an entry written in a logbook while his party explored the Cape Fear River Valley in 1524. He wrote about the “many vines growing naturally there.”  In 1584, Sir Walter Raleigh described these wild grapes as being “on the sand and on the green soil, on the hills as on the plains, as well as on every little shrub … also climbing towards the tops of tall cedars.”

In 1585, Governor Ralph Lane, when describing North Carolina to Sir Walter Raleigh, stated that “We have discovered the main to be the goodliest soil under the cope of heaven, so abounding with sweet trees that bring rich and pleasant grapes of such greatness, yet wild, as France, Spain, nor Italy hath no greater…”.

Scuppernongs were first cultivated during the 17th century, particularly in Tyrrell County, North Carolina. The oldest grapevine in the world is a 400-year-old scuppernong growing on Roanoke Island, North Carolina.  Known as the Mother Vine, it is growing in the backyard of a private home.

The scuppernong is the state fruit of North Carolina. It is mentioned in the North Carolina official state toast.

Here’s to the land of the cotton bloom white,

Where the scuppernong perfumes the breeze at night,

Where the soft southern moss and jessamine mate,

‘Neath the murmuring pines of the Old North State!

What is the difference between a muscadine and a scuppernong? Many people consider any bronze muscadine to be a scuppernong, but that is not true.  All scuppernongs are muscadines, but not all muscadines are scuppernongs. The muscadine is a broad category of grape that includes many varieties of both bronze and black fruit. The scuppernong is a large variety of muscadine. It is usually a greenish or bronze color.

Both bronze and dark varieties mature in late summer and early fall. They have worked their way into the culinary repertoire of the South in the form of jams, jellies, fruit butter, pies, juice, and especially wine. I found a recipe for Kirk’s muscadine wine on the internet. Good name but a different Kirk. I am unable to vouch for his wine.

For the last several Christmases we have received a jar of homemade scuppernong jelly from good friends. Our grandchildren make short work of the delicious treat.

Muscadines contain significant amounts of resveratrol, the same compound found in red and white wines so often touted as an agent for lowering cholesterol levels and the risk of coronary heart disease.

Relatively drought tolerant, the muscadine grows best in areas where temperatures don’t drop below zero degrees.

Three winters after we moved to Spartanburg a sudden freeze plummeted temperatures to ten degrees below zero in the Upstate. Sap was still in the trunk of our elderly scuppernong. The sap froze, splitting the trunk into pieces.

Though the original vine planted by my grandmother is gone, many offspring have survived. Last week I found a few of the large grapes dangling from a vine clinging to a fence. I plucked the fruit and washed it with the garden hose. I crushed the grape in my mouth, savoring the pulp and spitting out the husk and the seeds. I enjoyed the same sweet taste I remember so well from my childhood.


September 16, 2018

This year marks the eighteenth anniversary of the death of our twenty-seven-year-old son Erik. Through these years, Clare and I have learned much about the experience of grief. One important lesson is that there are many things that we will never understand in this life. I encourage bereaved people to ask all of the “Why?’ questions but to expect few answers. Death is one of the great mysteries of life. There are many things we will never understand this side of heaven. Clare has said that she is keeping a list of questions to ask God. She plans to take the list with her to heaven.

A major step in learning to grieve is to give up the expectation that things will always be the same. There is no vaccination against loss. It will come to all of us sooner or later. Sorrow will be a part of every life. No one will be exempt. Once we accept that reality, we can make decisions that will move us along through grief to resolution.

Another thing that we have learned is that life moves on. Think of life as a journey down a river. The river confronts us with a series of rapids and stretches of flat, calm water. As we begin the journey, the rapids are generally less difficult, the turbulence less threatening.

As we successfully negotiate those initial rapids, we learn to handle our paddle and our canoe. Experience teaches us that in calm water we can drift and let the flow of the river carry us along. In whitewater, to avoid boulders and other dangers, we must paddle with more effort and precision.

Occasionally the river of life shocks us with thundering rapids so turbulent that we have little control. While these severe rapids sap our energy and threaten to sink us, we have the assurance that calm water is ahead. As we negotiate the swirling rapids of loss and sorrow, we continue our lifelong journey of learning how to grieve.

Another important lesson for us has been the realization that many others walk through similar valleys of the shadow of death. Just this summer, I have conducted several funerals. One service was for a young man still in his prime who died an untimely death.  Another was for a man about my age who committed suicide.  The families of these two men have embarked on a long journey of grief. Though the circumstances were very different from those of Erik’s death, the pain of loss and the experience of grief are much the same as ours.

I have made up a wise old saying. “Don’t ever waste an experience of suffering.” One meaning of redemption is that we find a way to use every experience, even the painful ones, for some good. For us, that has been to help other grieving people who are part of this fellowship of suffering.

Horatio Spafford was a Chicago businessman in the late-nineteenth century. A senior partner in a prosperous law firm and devout elder in the Presbyterian church, Spafford and his wife, Anna, lived comfortably with their four young daughters. In 1871, when the Great Fire of Chicago reduced the city to ashes, it also destroyed Spafford’s sizable investments.

Two years later, the family planned a trip to Europe. At the last moment, Spafford was detained by business. Anna and the girls went ahead, sailing on the ocean liner S.S. Ville de Havre. On November 21, 1873, the liner was accidentally rammed by a British vessel and sank within twelve minutes. Anna was rescued clinging to a floating board. The four children drowned.

A fellow survivor recalled Anna saying, “God gave me four daughters. Now they have been taken from me. Someday I may understand why.” Nine days after the shipwreck Anna landed in Cardiff, Wales, and cabled her husband, “Saved alone. What shall I do?”

After receiving Anna’s telegram, Spafford immediately left Chicago to bring his wife home. On the Atlantic crossing, the captain of his ship called Horatio to his cabin to tell him that they were passing over the spot where his four daughters had perished. Horatio wrote a hymn as he passed over their watery grave.

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.

When we have learned to grieve, we, too, can affirm in any grief experience, “It is well with my soul.”