Only in Alabama: The Coondog Cemetery

Remember the scene in the movie Sweet Home Alabama where they sit in the coon dog graveyard and mourn the death of their dog and the loss of their relationship? Did you think that was just another made-up, stereotypical insult to Alabamians? Well, friends, I have news for you. It’s real. It exists. And I’ve been there. Twice.

My first adventure at the Coon Dog Cemetery was on Christmas Day, 2008. JD and I went to eat lunch with his grandparents, and we found ourselves driving them around northwest Alabama, visiting their favorite places. We saw where Grandad was born, the house Grandmom grew up in, the cemetery where Grandad’s sister was buried, and the schools they had attended. And then, without warning, it happened. I found myself (on Christmas Day, in a dress and high heels) stepping out of the car and into the Coon Dog Cemetery.

We read the grave markers, and JD’s grandparents knew stories about some of the dogs. Grandad told us about family gatherings at the Cemetery when he was younger – where the men would “sand the creek” to catch fish and the women would bring large “wash pots” to cook them in. Apparently, in this family, the Coon Dog Cemetery was a sacred spot. As if to prove it, JD took me to see the tree where he and his cousins had carved their initials when they were kids.

Y’all, I’m not making this up.

When my parents, Piper, and I went to the Rattlesnake Saloon a few weeks ago, we realized that we were only a few miles from the Cemetery. How could we go home without stopping by and paying our respects? How could I let my parents miss out on this unique spot of Alabama history? How could I not introduce Piper to a place so dear to her family?

So, I found myself once again stepping out of the car (this time in jeans and Toms, thankfully) and into the Cemetery. I didn’t have JD’s grandparents with me to tell the stories, but I was fortunate enough to find a brochure. Let me share a few of the more interesting quotes and excerpts with you.

“In a small, grassy clearing, deep in the rich, thick wilderness of Freedom Hills, Key Underwood sadly buried his faithful coon dog, Troop. They had hunted together for more than 15 years. They had been close friends.”

Good old Troop’s grave is surrounded with flowers and other tokens of remembrance. He was the first dog buried at this site, and the most beloved.

” ‘When I buried Troop, I had no intention of establishing a coon dog cemetery,’ said Underwood. ‘I merely wanted to do something special for a special coon dog.’ “

More than 200 coon dogs from all over the United States are buried in the Cemetery now, and there are strict requirements to qualify for burial. The dog must be an authentic coon-hound with witnesses to verify its lineage and an inspection by a local coon hunter’s organization.

“A spokesman for the Tennessee Valley Coon Hunter’s Association summed it up this way: ‘A dog can’t run no deer, possum — nothing like that. He’s got to be a straight coon dog, and he’s got to be full hound. Couldn’t be a mixed up breed dog, a house dog.'”

Key Underwood, Troop’s owner and the Cemetery’s founder, when asked about allowing other breeds to be buried there, responded: “‘You must not know much about coon hunters and their dogs, if you think we would contaminate this burial place with poodles and lap dogs.'”

The graves of these authentic coon hounds are well-marked. Some with homemade markers:

And some with fancy headstones:

If you think you’re up for a visit to the Coon Dog Cemetery, might I recommend going on Labor Day? Every year the Tennessee Valley Coon Hunter’s Association hosts a Labor Day celebration honoring the deceased dogs. You can celebrate by listening to music, eating barbecue, dancing, and witnessing the legendary ‘liar’s contest.”  You might even see JD’s grandmom and grandad there — they’re regulars!

Coondog Cemetery on Facebook


High Noon at the Rattlesnake Saloon

My parents like to go on road trips. As I’m writing this, they are on the back roads somewhere between Birmingham and Nashville checking out the fall scenery and discovering hole-in-the wall restaurants and shops. Last Saturday, however, they didn’t have anything planned, and invited me and Piper to ride along and explore with them.

Our destination: The Rattlesnake Saloon.

The Rattlesnake Saloon is a restaurant and bar built in the mouth of a cave. It’s located near Tuscumbia, Alabama, very close to where JD’s grandparents grew up. His Grandmom told me that before they had electricity, her mother would send her down to the springs near the cave to store their milk in the cool water. When JD’s dad was a teenager, the University of Alabama sent a research team to excavate the cave and recover Indian artifacts. Well, the Indians have been gone a long time, and electricity eventually came to the area. What’s left is a good burger joint and a fun afternoon!

When you pull into the parking lot, you might wonder if you’re in the right place. All you can see are horse stables and pastures. But if you wait in the parking lot for a minute, the “Saloon Taxi” truck will pull up and drive you down to the cave.

In the mouth of the cave, there are tables and a stage. In the Saloon building, there is a kitchen, a bar, and more tables. I was a little worried about taking my toddler to a saloon; but they don’t serve alcohol until 5pm, and the lunch crowd is full of families with children and church groups of senior adults.

We had read in the newspaper (and heard from several friends) that the Rattlesnake Saloon’s burgers had won a “Best in the State” award last year. I ordered the Rustler Burger, and it definitely lived up to its reputation. Fried cheesecake is also on the menu, and I wish we had left room to try it!

My girl had a great time, too. She danced and sang on the stage, ate french fries, and talked to the horses. She got VERY dirty, but that was just part of the fun.

I’m already looking forward to our next trip to the Rattlesnake Saloon, and I think you should check it out, too.

Rattlesnake Saloon Website

Rattlesnake Saloon on Facebook

Book Report: The Casual Vacancy (No Spoilers)

Judge me if you will, but I’m a big Harry Potter fan. I don’t think being a Christian and enjoying Harry Potter are mutually exclusive. The books are wonderfully written stories of good triumphing over evil. (And seriously, if you’re boycotting them because they involve witchcraft and magic, you had better boycott The Chronicles of Narnia, The Lord of the Rings, and The Wizard of Oz, too. At least be consistent about it!)

I read the Harry Potter books over and over again, and every time I’m more in awe of J.K. Rowling’s craftsmanship. The plot is foreshadowed two or three novels in advance. The story lines are complex and intertwined, but never confusing or clumsy. The characters are wonderfully developed: real and flawed, but still likeable.  When I think that Ms. Rowling imagined the entire story on a train ride and then so skillfully put it on paper, I’m absolutely amazed.

So, when I heard that she was writing an adult novel, I was obviously interested. I didn’t pay much attention to the press or the book reviews, because I trusted her as an author. (And honestly, she was so secretive that no one really knew what the book was about until it was released.) I picked up The Casual Vacancy (at Kroger, of all places!) and planned to read it on our anniversary trip. The problem with that plan, however, was that I couldn’t wait to begin reading the book. By the time we left for vacation, I was halfway through; and by breakfast time on the second day of our trip, I had finished.

The Casual Vacancy is set in the small town of Pagford, England. After town council member Barry Fairbrother dies of a sudden brain aneurysm, the town is left reeling. His friends grieve his loss in their own selfish ways. His opponents labor to fill his council seat with someone on “their” side of the issues. His political allies attempt to champion the causes for which Barry fought passionately.

Interestingly enough, there is no main character. We see the story unfold from the vantage point of five or six teenagers and about a dozen adults. I truly enjoyed the shifting viewpoints and voices, but quickly learned that every character is deeply flawed, extremely selfish, and not very likeable. Deceased Barry Fairbrother becomes the protagonist and the only truly likeable character. (Mainly because he’s dead and we never hear his inner thoughts or see his motives.) The characters may not be likeable, but they are very relate-able. I know people like some of them. I see myself in some of them.

The Casual Vacancy is a very well-written character study that is part coming-of-age-story and part mid-life-crisis. The storyline intertwines and overlaps on its way to a heartbreaking climax. In its gritty social commentary, the novel brings up questions of how we help those who can’t (and won’t) help themselves and how we treat the poor. In missions and in ministry, I have met these people and seen these same hopeless, hard situations. At the end of the book, I wanted Rowling to offer hope, but she doesn’t. The reader is left with a tragic conclusion to end a depressing story. But it’s real life. And it’s extremely well-written.

So, here’s my caveat: I’m not exactly recommending this book. It is FULL of profanity, sex, and vulgarity. I understand the author’s desire to describe a real, profane, and vulgar society. I understand that this gave further insight into the characters, their viewpoints, their problems, and their motivations. However, this makes me very hesitant to recommend it to other readers. If you’re under 18, don’t read it. If you’re very sensitive to profanity, don’t read it. If you’re looking for a feel-good pick-me-up, don’t read it. If you’re in the field of social work, you might want to check it out. If you think you can handle the grittiness, the vulgarity, and the gravity of the story, give it a try. And let me know what you think.

I’m very much looking forward to Ms. Rowling’s next book. I hope it’s a little lighter and happier, but I know it will be well-written.

Seven Years: The Highlight Reel

Last week JD and I celebrated our seventh wedding anniversary. Sometimes it feels like we’ve been married forever, and then sometimes it’s hard to believe that seven years have passed.

JD and I met at church, and knew each other for a few years before we started dating. We dated for two-and-a-half years, during which time I started college, JD graduated from college, I transferred to a different college, JD got a job at his home church, and we learned how to date long-distance.

JD asked me to marry him on either my 21st birthday or his 25th birthday. (His birthday is the day after mine, and it was close to midnight, so we’re just not sure!) After a seven month engagement, we were married on October 8, 2005.

When we got married, I moved to Albertville. Four months later, we moved to Dothan. Three years later, we moved to Macon, GA. After a sixth-month stay in Macon, we moved to Huntsville. Two years after that, we moved to Decatur.

Seven years. Five houses and one loft apartment. Six moves. Needless to say, I’m tired of moving!

In 2006, I graduated from UAB with a degree in secondary education and history. In 2008, JD graduated from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary with a Masters in Divinity.

We’ve had: One cat. Two dogs. Five cars. Six computers. Five iPods. Five iPhones.

We’ve been to five youth camps, six D-Now weekends, two conferences, and two mission trips. (And those are just the ones we’ve gone on together since we’ve been married!)

We’ve traveled to Jamaica, Seattle, and Athens, Greece (not to mention most of the southeast.)

The greatest adventure of our marriage, however, began in the summer of 2010 when we found out we were going to be parents.

Piper was born on January 25, 2011. She’s definitely the greatest blessing we’ve received in our marriage, and we don’t know how we ever managed without her.

So, seven years after saying, “I do,” I’m still counting my blessings. I’m thankful for every funny story, every inside joke, and every minute I’ve spent with my husband and daughter. Life is good and (most importantly) God is good.

The Hardest Part of Being a Pastor’s Wife

I love my husband. I love that he loves Jesus and the Church. I love that he spends his life for the sake of the gospel. Every Sunday as he preaches from the Word, I am proud of him. I love being a pastor’s wife, and I consider it a high compliment when I am called Mrs. Preacher.

However,  alongside the joys of being a pastor’s wife, there are many struggles, and these struggles have been heavy on my heart lately. And what’s the point in having a blog if I can’t use it to reflect and process personal struggles from time to time? So, here is my countdown of the hardest struggles I’ve faced as a pastor’s wife.

(Before I begin with my list, however, I need to clarify that my husband has prioritized his family and ministry responsibilities to keep me from facing the main struggle of most pastors’ wives. Many (if not most) wives of full-time ministers have to sacrifice time with their husbands in the name of service to the church. Many (if not most) full-time ministers wrongly prioritize their ministry to the church above their ministry to their families. One pastor’s wife I know and love told me once that she often felt like a single mom. I’m so thankful I haven’t had that experience. JD has committed to make his ministry to our family a higher priority than his ministry to his church, and he sets clear boundaries between family time and church time. He spends ample quality with me and Piper, and I am incredibly thankful for a husband who keeps his priorities in line.)

With that major struggle averted, here is my list of the hardest challenges I’ve faced in seven years of marriage to a full-time minister:

5) Unrealistic Expectations. Once upon a time I was a young, newly married youth pastor’s wife. Within a week of moving to a new church in a new city, I was (quite aggressively) asked to lead an interpretive dance ministry group, made up of about a dozen 40 to 60 year old ladies. They told me they were so excited that JD and I had come to their church because they needed a new leader and God had sent me to them. I was caught completely off guard, but thankfully had the presence of mind to stammer some excuse about needing to settle in before I made any commitments.

I might have gotten off the hook for that one, but I’m really not good as saying “no” and I’ve had to do many things I never wanted to. For example: 1) Choreographing youth Christmas musicals. (Even though I’ve never had a dance class in my life.) 2) Playing the keyboard in Easter programs. (I really tried to say no to this one. Several times.) 3) Confronting two middle school girls who were making a college-aged guy uncomfortable with their flirting. (Apparently neither the guy nor the moms who called me to do this could handle it themselves.) 4) Teaching a kids’ Bible Drill class. 5) Babysitting choir-members’ kids during the Easter program.

That’s just a small list of things I didn’t say “no” to. Here are a few of the requests I’ve denied: 1) Helping with an all-day kids’ sports camp (when I had a five-month-old baby.) 2) Teaching sixth grade VBS. 3) Joining the choir. (I’ve said no to this one more times than I can count!) 4) Enforcing modest dress among female church members.

Please don’t get me wrong. I love to serve in the church. I have taught youth Sunday School and small groups, mentored girls, led Bible studies, organized tutoring programs, spoken at Missions’ events, gone on mission trips, played in a hand-bell choir, etc. I even worked as JD’s assistant for a (short) season! But please, church members, if you love your pastor’s wife, let her choose how she serves. Don’t pressure her into serving in ways you think befit her position.

4) Unjust Criticisms. When JD is criticized, I take it much harder than he does. He is my hero, and I know the motivations and thoughts behind his actions. I understand his personality, his priorities, and his philosophy of ministry. When he is criticized unfairly, I get angry. Really angry.

Once, we were new to a church and spending time getting to know people. Instead of returning that favor, several people made a rash judgment about JD. They went to the senior pastor and complained that JD was arrogant. Those of you who know my husband will know how ludicrous that is. Introverted? yes. Arrogant? heck, no! Apparently he made a quick stop by an after-church party, said a general hello to everyone, spoke with the person he came to speak to, said a general goodbye, and left. Therefore, because he didn’t spend a hour engaging every person in the room in in-depth conversation, he was arrogant. In addition to this rash (and false) judgment, the complainers didn’t have the courage to address JD with this issue! Needless to say, when I heard about this I was irate. I’m still mad thinking about it. And I wish this was the only time in our ministry that JD was unjustly criticized, but it’s not, and dealing with this is a hard struggle.

3) Unnecessary Drama. There are some issues that are important and worth fighting for in the church. We can fight to protect sound doctrine, we can fight to remove prejudices, and we can fight sin. But there are some issues that simply are not worth fighting over. Those are the issues that (at least in our years of ministry) seem to cause the most trouble.

At one church we fought about doughnuts. Yes, doughnuts. Krispy Kremes, to be exact. We fought about doughnuts on multiple occasions over the course of several years. The debate got very heated and people took sides. Over doughnuts. Can you see me rolling my eyes here? If you’re going to fight for the church, fight over an issue that matters! Fight injustice, fight poverty, fight modern-day slavery, fight abortion. Fight for the spread of the gospel. Fight for those who can’t fight for themselves. But for goodness sake, don’t you have something better to do than fight over doughnuts?

2) Unsaid words. Over the years I’ve learned that one of the most essential skills of a pastor’s wife is the ability to hold her tongue. In good and bad circumstances, there are things I want to say that I can’t. I want to defend my husband against criticism. I want to explain why he does things the way he does them. I want to tell people to back off. I want to tell people what I think of them. I want to debate. I want to fight.

A part of my “flesh” that I’m continually trying to overcome is my desire to argue and debate. I enjoy it, and I’m good at it. In an English class debate I once made a girl cry. I often make up conflict scenarios in my head and think about the words I would use to make my case. (That’s not weird, is it?) When we’re facing drama or criticism within the church, my mind fills with arguments, debate points, stingers, and put-downs. But can I use them? No. Do I ever wish I had? Occasionally. But 99% of the time I’m so thankful I kept them to myself.

There is one past conversation that I wish I could return to and say what was in my head. But in that moment, I was so hurt and so mad that I was on the verge of tears and couldn’t say anything for fear of breaking down. Those tears, I truly believe, were God’s way of keeping me from saying something I would regret; and I’m sure that if I could return to that situation, He would send me those same tears of frustration. I just have to learn that, as hard as they are to keep in, there is grace in unsaid words.

1) Unfinished Ministry. By far the hardest thing about being a pastor’s wife is leaving a church. We’ve left four, and I miss people from every single one of those churches. Saying goodbye to people you love is never easy, even when you know God has ordained your move.

A friend and fellow pastor’s wife recently told me that she has needed to put up a wall between herself and the people of her church to keep herself from getting too attached. She and her husband have moved many times, served in many churches, and left behind many friends. And while I hate to admit this, I know I’ve been guilty of the same thing. If I don’t get too close, it won’t hurt as much when we have to leave.

This wall-building, however, never lasts. We can’t help but develop close friendships with the people who serve in the church alongside us. And honestly, we want and need those friendships badly. So we let down our walls and enjoy a season of life in community with those friends and pray that we won’t be called to move on. (At least for a long time.)

Thank you for praying for your pastor and your pastor’s wife. I really do love my position in ministry and I’m thankful for the things God is teaching me through these struggles. So, fellow pastors’ wives: what would you add? What are the hardest struggles for you?