In your parade, don’t forget to laugh!

Friday, November 1 was a busy day.

At nine that morning, I met Joe Andrews at Trinity UMC for a meeting with a gutter contractor. 

Next, I was scheduled to be at J. R. Tucker High School for a groundbreaking ceremony.

Then back to Trinity for some final preps for a one o’clock funeral. We lost a long time member, and a really sweet lady, Rachel Habel. This prep involved a skirmish with the technology gods to get a slide show to cooperate.

By 12:25, I was scrambling out of Trinity heading to the other side of the county for another groundbreaking ceremony at Highland Springs High School.

Once this ceremony was over, I hustled back to Trinity. When the funeral reception was finished in the Welcome Center, we had to make sure the Sanctuary and Welcome Center were ready for a 4:30 wedding rehearsal.

With the help of the ushers from the funeral, and Trinity office manager, Paula Cadden, both areas were put back in shape.

My school board hat was put on again for my next Friday afternoon assignment, the Douglas Freeman High School Homecoming Parade.

If you know me at all, being in the limelight is not my comfort zone. Riding in a convertible, waving and smiling at strangers, while occasionally tossing candy toward children along the route is not my strong suit. But, there I was.

Our neighbor’s, Dan and Nancy Heller, had kindly agreed to let their maroon Mustang convertible be my ride for the event. Around 4:50, Dan drove me over to the staging area in the parking lot of the newly renovated Tuckahoe Middle School. We picked up the sign for the car, secured it to the passenger side, and positioned the car into our #4 slot.

Now, the last time I was in a homecoming parade was on October 9, 1970 in my hometown, Burlington, North Carolina.

My best friend, John Huffman, was escorting our classmate, Maggie Runyon, for some organization at Walter Williams High School. Maggie secured a  Cadillac convertible for me to drive down Main Street. The Caddie was like a battleship. I’m thankful no parallel parking was required.

Now, here comes the confession. I was a senior in high school. But, I had not completed all of the requirements for having an official North Carolina driver’s license.

I drove that Caddie down Main Street past countless police officers. Luckily for me, there were no opportunities for a fender bender. But, there was one challenge near the end of the parade route.

My mother who happened to work in one of the office buildings along Main Street had stepped outside for a few minutes with co-workers to watch the parade. When my mother saw me behind the wheel, I thought her eyes were going to pop out of her head.  

Thankfully, when I arrived home, my mother and father did not kill me. Clearly, they would have been within their rights to do so. 

This can be verified in the trusted manual,  the Parental Guide For Attempting To Raise Teenagers, Chapter 42, page 3,499, section 220, citation 27 states: “Parents do have permission to harm a teenage son who drives a convertible Cadillac in a homecoming parade without the proper driving credentials from the state of residence.”

Now, in truth during my ride along the parade route on Three Chopt Road on this beautiful November afternoon, I was nervous. 

I could envision a police car from Burlington pulling in behind the Mustang with its blue lights flashing. Headlines scanned through my brain—School Board Member Apprehended In Homecoming Parade—North Carolina Police Officers Serve A 49 Year Old Warrant.

Luckily that didn’t happen, but I reckon if Bernard P. Fife was still around, I would have reason to keep looking over my shoulder.

I suspect the only people who might have been upset with me in the homecoming parade were the parents of young children. 

I gently tossed  pieces of candy toward them. I’m sure this was a big hit with the parents since Halloween had been the night before. But, I could reason an alternate take with the candy tossing— it might render future business for local dentists.

Well, the parade route gradually came to an end. 

We were directed into the parking lot beside the high school. A nice lady clipped the sign off the passenger side door. Dan parked the Mustang in an adjoining lot. We walked over to Three Chopt Road and watched the remainder of the parade.

We found our wives. They had been joined by our son, Andrew his wife, Kathryn, and my little Miss Mess, their daughter, Josie.

The parade ended. I had been lucky. Even though there had been 49 years between my parade appearances, the fall weather was perfect. As we know, this parade we are in everyday—called life isn’t always perfect.

Scan the headlines from your preferred news feed for a few seconds, and you will find an abundance of our imperfections. Most of those headlines worry me and hurt my old heart.

In the fall of 1979, I was an English teacher at Hermitage High School. I had lots of prep to do everyday to be ready for my parade of sophomore and junior students. The American literature book for the junior students contained some of the work of writer James Thurber.

Mr. Thurber was a gifted writer—he made me laugh.

I always loved this quote from Mr. Thurber:  “Humor is emotional chaos remembered in tranquility.”

In the emotional chaos of your parade of life, I encourage you to find those moments of tranquility, find that humor, and laugh.

Laugh at your parade for a few seconds. Go ahead, your heart will appreciate it.

After all, Ecclesiastes 3:4 granted authorization: “a time to laugh.”

Perhaps, that is why God is still around—in all of his emotional chaos, I suspect sometimes— He laughs.

Smothered? Try up.

On the morning of Sunday, October 27, our 18 month old grandson was up early. Even for an early riser like me, Hudson was up way too early. Try 4:45, I fear he has his grandfather’s internal alarm clock.

His patient mother tumbled downstairs with him, and his father wasn’t too far behind. We all just kind of looked at Hudson with puzzled, bewildered expressions. I wondered out loud to his parents—“Probably when he is a teenager, you will not be able to pry him out of bed.”

Hudson wanted to go outside. It was raining. Sunrise was nowhere to be found. He was persistent. But, we found a temporary distraction —Dora The Explorer.

One of Hudson’s favorite words is up. Dora didn’t disappoint. In one of the scenes, we heard her command in Spanish “arriba, arriba.” 

During this October weekend, I had the opportunity to comply with Hudson’s “up” command countless times. Made me wonder about people and all the things up can mean for us.

Are you going up the ladder?  Can you keep up with the pace?

How do you keep up with your schedule? Are things looking up for you? Can you pick your toys up? What are you up to? Look up at that sky.

I’m guessing at times all of us struggle a bit to keep our spirits up. We all have challenges along the way. Sometimes, those challenges wear us down.

During the spring semester of my senior year of college, I did my student teaching at Aycock Junior High School in Greensboro, North Carolina. That was 44 years ago! My cooperating teacher, Wallace Pegram, told me early on some pedagogical wisdom—“there is a lot of psychology in teaching.”

He was correct. Not only was there a lot of psychology in teaching, there is a lot of psychology in life.

Relationships involve lots of psychology too.

Relationships will experience ups and downs, good days, lousy days. 

There will be days when a person in a relationship might feel smothered, trapped. Days when separation is needed. Days when space is needed.

A bit of separation and space in a smothering relationship might have some benefits.

It gives the person who is feeling smothered, overwhelmed, and with a touch of uncertainty a chance to think, reflect, assess, and evaluate.

Clearly,  I am no psychologist. But, I wonder in assessing a relationship if it might be a help if we consider the following:

Sometimes we must walk backward to learn how to move forward.

What might be gained by looking back? 

When we take an extended view in that rear view mirror is it possible that we might rediscover key turning points that were overlooked or totally ignored? Might those missed details form a solution or a path for moving forward?

Oh, wouldn’t it be nice if figuring out a relationship was as simple and innocent as Hudson’s request—“up.”

Hudson’s tiny request really comes down to listening.

Can that person who feels smothered in a relationship, who needs a bit of separation and space find a set of non-judgmental ears to hear them out?

The short answer is probably yes. But finding that person who can listen without judging is all about timing. 

We move so fast today that we might fail to take the split second to really, really hear the ask from that smothered person.

Way up there in that blue yonder are a couple of guys whose ears never tire. I lean on them everyday. 

The answer to my prayers might not be delivered in a split second, but I sense those ears in that blue yonder hear my itty-bitty voice. Even in all the chaos down on earth.

Those same ears can hear the person who feels smothered.

At some point in his life, our early riser, Hudson, might feel smothered.

I hope he remembers— “up.”

That Box of Chocolates

Forrest Gump had it right when he quoted his momma:  “Life is like a box of chocolates you never know what you are going to get.”

Perhaps that quote is a very accurate view about life. Try as we might to see into our futures— we never really know what life will bring us.

In 1975, six young men graduated from college. As different as they were from their Maryland, North Carolina, and Florida upbringings something clicked.

 Somehow, during the last 44 years, they have maintained and nurtured their friendships.

 Weddings, births of children, divorces, coming out, passing of parents, successful careers, arrival of grandchildren, and talking about  all of their ups and downs have always been shared. Shared at an annual gathering when calendars match and a location is secured for a weekend.

At this stage in my life, if I was hanging by my last pinkie, I know one of my pals would be there for me. And, I would do the same for them.

Recently, one of my college pals and his wife experienced the tragedy no parent wants. And frankly, the experience that no parent deserves—the loss of a child.

In this case, their youngest son was gunned down. This occurred after spending a delightful boat outing on a quiet lake in Arizona with his wife who is expecting their first child. 

We may never know why an employee at the marina pulled the trigger.  But, I know this, his decision was reckless—senseless, and not required.

In those fast moving seconds, lives were forever altered.

It took days for courage to nudge my heart in reaching out to my pal and his wife. 

What do you say? 

In this uncharted territory, maybe it isn’t what I say as a friend, but how I listen to my devastated pal.

Late in the summer, a memorial service was held for their son. 

In my careers, I’ve attended a lot of funeral services. But, I don’t think I have ever witnessed such an outpouring of love in the celebration of a person’s life as was shown for my pal’s son. It was incredible.

But the courage of that afternoon came from my pal’s wife. 

At the appropriate time in the service, she spoke as only a mother can. Her words were exactly what they should have been—laughter, tears, honesty, and her love.

From a distance, I knew about the ups and downs of their son’s life. He struggled. You name it—the struggles confronted him.

Yet, somehow, someway, he beat those struggles. It was a transformation. A transformation like none I have ever witnessed.

The changing of his life created an opportunity for him to transform other lives. His life’s passion, his drive, energy, and determination became transforming the lives of parents and their children.

He was very, very, very good at this. He made a lasting impact on the families. He transformed not only their lives, but the lives of people around him as well.

And that might be the real question for me in the aftermath of this horrible, horrible tragedy. 

How might this senseless loss be used to transform me?

How might I use me to change this thinking in our society—  pulling the trigger of a firearm should not always be the solution to a problem.

Our annual gathering this fall was at Smith Mountain Lake in what I consider the best month of the year—October.

We talked. We laughed. We cried. We shared. We remembered. We hugged. We loved.

And deep inside each of us, “why” was pinging and ricocheting—why, why, why? Why did such a horrible, awful tragedy occur?

That piece of chocolate in the box that brings lives to an abrupt end due to the gun violence in our country needs to be forever tossed out.

Our country desperately needs to experience a transformation for the good.

That struggle for transformation will depend upon our capacity to reshape our hearts. Not only our hearts, but also the hearts we encounter on a daily basis.

This will require building relationships in an emotional territory.

That will not be easy. 

But, our hearts can’t afford not to try.

Life, Where Is My Faith?

Read Luke 8:22-25

Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you.

1 Peter 5:7

Thought For The Day

Worries and anxieties can be less stressful with faith and trust.

Since August 8, 2010, I silently read the following words every morning—“In your strength, enable us to drop our burdens and set aside our anxiety about life.” 

Those sixteen words were a part of the opening prayer printed in our Sunday morning worship bulletin at my church. I carried the bulletin home. I placed it with my prayer lists in my Bible. 

I consider myself to be a natural born worrier. The words in the prayer spoke to me. And despite my devotion in reading that sentence every morning, I still worry. I have failed to drop my burdens and set aside life’s anxiety.

Why is this?

For me, the answer is grounded in trust. Do I trust God and Jesus to guide me through my life’s worries? Despite citing numerous examples where their strength supported me, my complete trust is absent.

Recently, I helped a friend load a grill on to his truck. What I thought would be a brief task, turned into a long conversation about his worries. I listened. His concerns touched every part of his life. They were significant. But, I heard in his words of worry this affirmation—my friend’s complete trust in God.

I am much like the disciples in the storm tossed boat when Jesus asked them—“Where is your faith?”

I need to answer that question.

Prayer:  Father of us all, to drop our burdens and anxieties, help us to find our faith and trust in you. Amen

Prayer Focus: Family, friends, neighbors and strangers who are weighted with worry.

#79 “words flowing”

In England on October 9, 1940, Winston Churchill was elected as the leader of the Conservative Party. Adolf Hitler was creating problems for Jews in the occupied Netherlands.  And in Liverpool, England John Winston Lennon was born. 

At the age of 24, John and his bandmates Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr would have their own invasion and revolution when they landed in America on February 7,1964. 

The band, named the Beatles, had already created chaos and hysteria in their homeland with their music. Now, it would be America’s time to experience that same bedlam and mania.

For the next sixteen years, John Lennon would experience all of the ups and downs of becoming a rock star, a public figure who could create friction with his views and activism. Whether, you were a fan of the music or not, we all know that John’s life ended much to soon at the age of 40. 

In 1964, I was in the fifth grade at Hillcrest Elementary School in Burlington, North Carolina. I too became caught up in the frenzy of Beatlemania. Something about their sound resonated with me. I became a dedicated fan.

I’m not sure that I had a favorite Beatle, but as they evolved, the lyrics to some of their songs stuck to me. While song writing credits were printed on the orange and yellow Capitol Records label as John Lennon and Paul McCartney, I could sense when a song had been birthed by John.

“I’m A Loser” from the Beatles’ 65 album was one of the first to make me think a bit. A simple song about a boy losing his best girl. I love the lines from the chorus—“I’m a loser, I’m a loser, and I’m not what I appear to be.” I wonder how many times in my growing up and even as an adult I felt like a “loser.” 

Today, we know that mental health is a significant issue in our country. How many people walking around us each day might be captured by these words from “I’m A Loser”:  “Although I laugh and I act like a clown, beneath this mask I am wearing a frown.”

The title song to their second movie—Help! caught my attention too. I could easily quote the entire song. To get through life, we all need help. Think about this insightful observation:

      And now my life has changed in oh so many ways

      My independence seems to vanish in the haze

      But every now and then I feel so insecure

      I know that I just need you like I’ve never done before

I’m 66 years old. I think about how my life changes everyday. Where is my independence? Will I continue to lose more of it as I age? When do I feel insecure? Who is going to guide me through the haze of my future insecurities? I wonder what was churning through young Mr. Lennon’s mind at the time.

With the release of the Rubber Soul album, the Beatles were laying the groundwork for their recording future. The album contains many nuggets, but “In My Life” is a real heart tugger. Here is the last stanza:

Though I know I’ll never lose affection

For people and things that went before

I know I’ll often stop and think about them

In my life I love you more

I remember the lyrics for “In My Life” appearing in my high school yearbook in 1971.  That was the year I somehow managed to eek out of high school. But, the song makes me reflect. How often is my daily routine politely interrupted by a name, a face, a memory? Do I pause and think about those people? Have I lost affection for their molding and shaping my life?

But, it was another song written during the Rubber Soul time frame that really caught my attention—“Nowhere Man.” 

A long time ago, a friend told me that a pastor played this song as a part of a sermon for his congregation in Raleigh, North Carolina. I wonder what ran through the minds of the congregation. Maybe, the older members thought their pastor was losing his marbles, but the youth in attendance were probably pleasantly surprised.

“Doesn’t have a point of view, knows not where he’s going to, isn’t he a bit like you and me?” We all have points of view about life. And, it is difficult at times to maybe know where we are headed with our views and ambitions. But, the question he asks really is the kicker. How similar are we at times to “nowhere man”?

Two more lines naw at me—“He’s as blind as he can be, just sees what he wants to see.” How many times has that been me? Just seeing what I want to see as it pertains to me, and ignoring an opportunity to help out a “nowhere man?”

John Lennon took us on whimsical word journeys too. “Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite,” “I Am The Walrus,” “Hey Bulldog,” and “Mean Mr. Mustard” come to mind.

He could be raw with the emotional “Yer Blues” or “Don’t Let Me Down” and also as gentle as a breeze with “Julia”—“Julia, seashell eyes, windy smile, calls me, so I sing a song of love for Julia”.

Religion from time to time created an uneasy tension between Lennon and the public. In 1966, he made the comment about the Beatles being more popular than Jesus. That set off a fire storm. In protest, Beatles records were burned, and radio station dropped them from playlist rotations. 

Three years later, the single “The Ballad of John and Yoko” created a stir with these lines—“Christ you know it’s not easy, you know how hard it can be, the way things are going, they’re going to crucify me.” 

Yet, despite these agitations, Lennon still wrote songs with a grounding in “love”.

Gradually, the undertow of personality conflicts, management quarrels, and an assortment of challenges, wore the Beatles down. The smiles for publicity photos were gone, and the breakup occurred. 

For a period of time, I eagerly followed their solo careers. Lennon’s lyrics continued to resonate with me. Songs like “Love,” “Crippled Inside,” and “Watching The Wheels” had lines that made me ponder my own outlook.

By now, you might be thinking to yourself, Bill, how could you not reference “All You Need Is Love” or “Revolution” or “Imagine” or, or, or? 

Well, I let you grapple with selecting your own personal John Lennon playlist. The depth of his catalog is impressive. For this piece, I attempted to focus on a few songs that for good or bad stuck to me.

And, as I work to bring this piece to closure, I’ll reference the song “Across The Universe”. This song appeared on the Let It Be album. Originally, it was on a compilation album of assorted artist for the benefit of the World Wildlife Fund.

John had a very interesting observation about “Across The Universe” in a 1970 interview with Rolling Stone

Lennon referred to the song as perhaps the best, most poetic lyric he ever wrote: “It’s one of the best lyrics I’ve written. In fact, it could be the best. It’s good poetry, or whatever you call it, without chewing it. See, the ones I like are the ones that stand as words, without melody. They don’t have to have any melody, like a poem, you can read them.”[5]

I agree with his assessment. Here is a sample from the opening verse:

“Words are flowing out like endless rain into a paper cup. They slither while they pass, they slip away across the universe. Pools of sorrow waves of joy are drifting through my opened mind, possessing and caressing me.”

Today, Wednesday, October 9, 2019 would have been year 79 for John Lennon.

Sadly, an assailant’s mental health and a firearm ended John’s life. Perhaps, even more heartbreaking is 39 years after his death, in America every day mental health and firearms are still robbing people of life. 

Like all of us, John Lennon, had his imperfections. 

Yet despite these challenges, John found a way to put words on paper. Words that captured his feelings, his emotions, and his experiences. His lyrics did “ flow out to us like endless rain into a paper cup”.

I’m thankful that paper cup full of lyrics was shared.

“Oh, you’re the church with the pumpkins.”

Right on time, on the morning of Saturday, September 28, the long tractor trailer pulled into the front drive of Trinity United Methodist Church. Our youth leader, Bryce Miller, directed the driver to park the rig parallel to Forest Avenue. 

Soon, a flurry of human activity would swarm the truck to unload a shipment of pumpkins and seasonal gourds from New Mexico.

The driver, Tony, from neighboring Hanover County, shared the route that had taken him west across America. He made a few delivery stops before heading to an Indian reservation in New Mexico to pickup our annual order of pumpkins.

Tony explained in admiring detail how he drives his truck into a field. A conveyor belt is properly placed inside the trailer. Exactly 24 men from the tribal council carefully load the pumpkins on a bed of straw layered on the floor of the trailer. Tony said it took about two hours to load.

Interestingly, it took our multiple generational group of volunteers a little over two hours to unload the truck too. These volunteers were a human conveyor belt.

 They were aided only by a forklift. This mechanical Hercules was used to unload several large crates of smaller pumpkins. Staged on tough wooden pallets, the forklift operator in a matter of minutes had the crates off the truck and positioned on our front lawn. Supplied by Trinity member, Mike Hildebrand, the forklift was a real back saver.

Unloading the pumpkins is tough work. The process is a good workout. Clearly, it is a satisfying feeling when the last pumpkin is carried out. But the last chore of the unloading—cleaning out the straw from the trailer is no fun.

Occasionally, I am asked where I attend church. I state our church’s name, its location, and then the person who asked makes the following association—“Oh, you’re the church with the pumpkins.” And, I reply, “Yes, we are the church with the pumpkins.”

“Oh, you’re the church with the pumpkins,” forms many questions in my mind. Does that association mean we are a one dimensional church?  I hope not.

Selling the pumpkins every fall has two dimensions. The proceeds from the sale benefit our middle and high school students on spring and summer mission trips. Additionally, our agreement with the Indian council in New Mexico is an economic booster for their community.

Churches always have been interesting places. Whether they can continue to survive in what appears to be an unfavorable climate for growth lies in the layers of their dimensions.

The world has changed around churches. Try as we might to recognize this, I’m not sure if we realize how much the world has changed.

For example, the truck driver who delivered our pumpkins uses an app on his phone to find pickup and delivery jobs that meet his criteria and rate of compensation. In a similar manner, people search for churches today by checking out apps and websites.

I have a friend who has his private pilot’s license. He is also a certified trainer for the type of plane he flies. 

One training exercise for beginning pilots involves working through an emergency while flying. My friend trains prospective pilots to aviate, navigate, and communicate. 

Fly the plane, know your location and assess your options, and communicate immediately what you are experiencing to air traffic controllers or the nearest control tower. In other words that pilot must rapidly adapt to the emergency conditions. Failure to do so could mean a tragedy.

Without question, the future for churches hinges on their capacity to adapt. Adapting can mean lots of things. But at the very least, this means asking lots of difficult questions. 

Ultimately, the answer to those questions will be grounded in another question— are churches willing to change?

Change can be both simple and difficult. 

I suspect the most difficult part for a church contemplating significant changes will be managing the civility of its leadership and its congregation toward each other as they work through the process.

In this process, churches must keep in front of them—Romans 12:10: “love one another with mutual affection.” 

As the church figures out if it can adapt, will loving and respecting each other be easy—no.

But, if churches don’t, they won’t be hanging around by their fingernails any longer.

And, “Oh, you’re the church with the pumpkins,” will be gone in a slow, painful, agonizing blink.

By the way, how are your steering currents?

1 Kings Chapter 18 verse 44 states:  “Look, a little cloud no bigger than a person’s hand is rising out of the sea.”

Hard to comprehend that a seemingly harmless small bundle of clouds could grow into a raging hurricane like Dorian.

Unless you were a salamander lodging under a decaying log, or a grub munching tall fescue roots in your neighbor’s lawn, I suspect you heard about Hurricane Dorian. 

Even though Dorian eventually moved away from us, we are going to continue to learn about Dorian’s destruction for a long, long time.

In the aftermath of Dorian’s destructive path, I think the National Hurricane Center should retire that name from their storm naming list. I’m sure there are lots of nice Dorians in our world, but this storm wasn’t very nice.

As the storm approached the Bahamas, Dorian decided to shift out of drive into park. With 185 mile an hour winds and higher gusts, Dorian obliterated the Abaco Islands. 

For almost two days, Dorian did not move. Looking at the post-Dorian photographs, I only see destruction. I wonder how anyone lived through the howling winds, pounding rain, and an angry surging ocean.

Watching news reports from our kitchen table one evening, my wife and I listened as the head of the National Hurricane Center, Ken Graham, reported that Dorian had lost its steering currents. These steering currents are a flow of wind embedded in the hurricane. While they be a smaller feature of the storm, these essential winds determine the movement of the hurricane.

For whatever reason, those steering currents stopped working inside Dorian. That non-movement resulted in Abaco’s devastation. 

Even when the steering currents returned to Dorian, the storm’s travel speed was slow. A gradual turn pushed the hurricane to taunt the southeastern coast.

 Finally, on Friday, September 6, Dorian came ashore over the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Even as a Category 2, Dorian’s 90 mile an hour winds, buckets of rain, and turbulent ocean consumed and isolated Ocracoke Island.

Thankfully, by late Friday, Dorian’s steering currents pushed it offshore, and accelerated the storm further off the coast.

For some reason, all of this attention about Dorian, and its troublesome steering currents made me wonder about my own steering currents. 

What steers me in my daily path through life?

What impacts my actions, my thoughts, my temperament, my interactions with family, neighbors, friends, colleagues at work, and strangers?

Along those same lines, I wonder what stirs the steering currents for other people?

Recently, no matter where I look our steering currents appear to be dividing us.

 I think we are allowing our steering currents to create a gap, a separation between us. This type of steering prevents us from finding a level path to have civil conversation. Heck, even the steering currents in my Methodist church over human sexuality have created a division.

Last week, as Dorian was creating its churning chaos, I needed to discard some cumbersome items at the county’s landfill. With a borrowed pickup truck, I made the drive, paid my fee, and positioned the truck for unloading.

Another truck pulled up beside me and the owner started to unload. But, at one point, this gentleman stopped, and he asked me if I needed a hand. This stranger had observed that I was going to need some help with one large item.

His assessment was correct. I gladly accepted his offer. Afterwards, I shook his hand and thanked him for his help.

I wonder what steered this man to offer assistance? What nudged him inside to offer a hand?

Dorian rose out of the sea as a little cloud. 

In contrast to the monster hurricane it became, I wonder what  I, you, me, we could become if we allowed our steering currents to be less divisive.

Something out of the blue steered that stranger to lend me a hand—why?

Perhaps, uncovering the “why” is in imbedded in the steering currents of our hearts.

Practicing Steps

On the morning of Friday, August 30, I confirmed to my wife, the Commander Supreme, what I suspect that she has quietly known for almost 44 years—she married a moron.

Let me explain my confession.

Earlier in the summer, we had our basement professionally waterproofed. That intrusion turned our quiet basement upside down. It was organized chaos during the process, and for me the chaos is still churning as I struggle to get the basement back to normal.

On Thursday evening, I was attempting to be a good husband by washing clothes. I filled the washing machine with a load of my dirty clothes. This was a dark load, so I set the dial for cold water,  and pushed the start button. 

I had a properly measured cup of liquid detergent ready to hold under the cascading cold water. When my hand and cup hit the water, the water I felt was hot, not cold. How could this be? I rechecked the dial setting. It was clearly on cold.

I let that load run. Prepped a second load, went through the same routine—hot water again, no cold.

So then, something dangerous happened—I started thinking.

I inspected the hose connections at the source. Both were properly connected to hot(red) and cold(blue). I followed the hoses to the back of the washing machine. The connections looked correct. But, I inspected further, and that’s when I discovered the incompetence of my brain. 

Once the basic basement water proofing work had been completed, I rushed to get our washer and dryer back on line. I failed in that rush to look at the big H and C on the back of the washer. These not so subtle reminders were obviously created for husbands like me who quite often operate without a full deck. So, since early July, thanks to my ineptness we have been washing clothes in hot water. I quickly made the correction.

Now the tough part was ahead of me—making the confession. Perhaps, I should consult a website for brainless husbands for advice.  Not wanting to ruin the Commander Supreme’s Thursday evening, I saved my confession for Friday morning. 

On Friday morning, I was pleasantly surprised. The confession didn’t garner much of a response—a mild “Good that you found it.” But, it was the mildness of the reply that worried me. What was the Commander thinking behind her tolerant brown eyes?

My hunch is she was thinking something like this—“My husband, just confirmed for me what I have known for years. Now, if I ever need proof in the future to convince someone that his brain is smaller than a ceratopogonidae, a noseeum, I have it!”

Working in a church, I sometimes come across situations that make me wonder about the functionality of the gray matter of the people who use our building.

How can a coffee urn be left for weeks without being properly cleaned?

For example, how can a person not flush a fully loaded toilet? 

How can a person put bagged landscaping debris into a recycling dumpster?

How can a person slam a hymnal into the pew rack with such force that the rack collapses?

In that same environment, how can a person allow one of their feet to make one of the nailed slats of the Bible holding rack under the pew collapse?

We have church members who volunteer to tidy up the pews to make sure everything is neat and properly stocked for the next Sunday service. Bottom line on this one, I’m sorry to let you down, but we Methodist are not neat worshippers.

On that same Friday of my confession to the Commander Supreme, I was tasked with making a pew rack and Bible rack repair in the Sanctuary. 

In making those repairs, I’m pretty sure the devil must have been loitering in the Sanctuary. Because everything that could go wrong went wrong in fixing the flawed fixtures. At one point, I contemplated removing every hymnal and Bible rack. 

I thought further, I would love to catch the person who created these rack problems. I guarantee it would be the last time, and then it dawned on me— Bill, you are whining, whining, whining, whining. What about your own imperfections? Have you forgotten the hot and cold washing machine blunder?

Earlier on Friday morning, after I had made my washing machine catastrophe confession to the Commander Supreme, I headed to Trinity.

I was outside on the Preschool side of the building. Preschool starts on Tuesday, I was knocking down spider webs and sweeping debris.

At the entrance closest to the Bicentennial Garden, I saw a young mother and father and their two children walking toward that doorway.  I asked if they needed to get in the building, and they responded, “No, we’re just practicing steps.”

One of the parents had the daughter by her hand. They were navigating the sloped brick sidewalk and the steps that lead to the door landing. Words of encouragement came from the parent to the daughter.

These wise parents were prepping the daughter for Tuesday’s opening. They were helping her anticipate this new environment—practicing steps.

So much of life is simply about practicing steps. 

Everything we do on a daily basis that we take for granted involved  a series of steps. Some steps are planned, some are improvised, and some intrude without warning.

Maybe, our chances of attempting to live right are better if we consider our practices in our steps. For me that can mean incorporating the practice of taking a giant step back and reflecting on my imperfections.

This quote from Katharine Hepburn sums me up pretty well:

“We are taught you must blame your father, your sisters, your brothers, the school, the teachers—but never blame yourself. It’s never your fault. But, it’s always your fault, because if you wanted to change, you’re the one who has got to change.”

Without question, and with quite a dose of grumpiness, I am often quick to blame.

When this happens, Luke 6:42 is nowhere to be found in the vacuum between my ears:

“Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Friend, let me take out the speck in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the log in your own eye?”

Clearly, no speck of sawdust is in my eye, I have a 2×4 lodged in there.

I need to rethink my steps in life.

I wonder if I can change?

My steps need some practicing.

Left On Belmont Avenue

Every morning, Monday through Friday, since August 18, I’ve been making a left turn off of Grove Avenue on to Belmont Avenue.  I pass the expensive, but delicious Zeus Gallery Café, clear the intersection at Hanover, and then pull into the parking lot at Benedictine High School, a private, military school supported by the Catholic church.  

I park. As I walk across the lot, I observe young men in Army green. Besides the green, they also have something else in common—a barber who only knows one style, a military cut.

 I walk up the stairs, through the main office, down a short corridor lined with cadet history.  I make a left down a hall lined with graduating class pictures to Room 206. This is where I teach four straight classes of freshman English from 8:00 to 11:17.  

Clearly, I have lost my mind.

Not since the mid-1980’s have I been responsible for preparing lesson plans, taking attendance, rereading pieces of literature that I thought I would never see again, playing psychological chess with teenage males, and grading papers.  

Years ago when I first became an assistant principal at a local high school, people asked me if I missed being in the classroom. My first response was I don’t miss grading papers. 

 And now again, I’m up to my ears in grading papers.  The faculty and staff at Benedictine ask me how I’m doing, and I tell them I’m going to have a t-shirt designed that will say, “Benedictine: It’s Wearing Me Out!”

Having spent all of my previous life in public education, I have noticed a few subtle differences at Benedictine.  

Faculty meetings begin with a prayer. Morning announcements begin with the Lord’s Prayer.  Cadets learn the school’s prayer, and students have the option of attending confession a couple of times during the week.  Even though I’m not Catholic, I’ve attended three masses with the faculty, staff, and our students. 

 Despite all of this Catholic exposure, my mother-in-law can relax; I have no plans to convert.

Schools continue to be fertile ground for stories. And speaking of fertile, there is a young teacher on the faculty whose wife gave birth to their fifth daughter last week.  

I heard about one teacher who with his wife was locked by accident into the Henrico County dump late one evening. They were scavenging through the too good to be thrown away section.  

Learned about the retired Marine Corps Colonel who has a high ranking daughter in the Marines. But, the Colonel also lost a son in the crash of a Marine helicopter during a training mission.  

But the real stories evolve around students.

The transition from middle school to high school is challenging just about everywhere, but when you factor in an Army Junior ROTC program, that can make the adjustment even more challenging. This is especially true for freshmen who have anxiety about orientation from upperclassmen not to mention the expectations from the Army veterans in charge of the program.    

For one of my students this transition wasn’t any fun.  

Teenagers will be teenagers no matter what the environment might be. One afternoon while this young man was in the process of getting ready for his physical education class, a classmate directed some inappropriate comments toward him. 

 The student who was devastated by the comments is slender, with a slight frame. And I’m guessing that any pursuit of organized athletics was probably a frustrating experience for him.  Of course, the perpetrator was the exact opposite.

I found out about this crushing afternoon from a friend of mine in our neighborhood. My friend knows the young man’s family.  I received an e-mail from my friend letting me know that the student had a rough day, and he simply asked that I keep an eye on him tomorrow.

Later that evening, I received a phone call from the headmaster of the school to discuss the situation.  The headmaster had spoken with the student’s mother at length.  

She told the headmaster that her son was so upset that he had stated to her, “Tomorrow, I don’t want to wakeup.” In all of my experiences working in schools, I can’t remember a comment hitting my heart so hard.

It was easy to tell the parent that the knucklehead who created this problem had been punished. Now, the real issue was whether or not the student who had taken the verbal harassment would have the courage to attend school tomorrow. 

The headmaster had a plan.  A letter to the editor in the Richmond Times-Dispatch  written from the perspective of a young man with Down syndrome about name calling and stereotyping was going to be used.  I would share this article with my four freshmen classes, and make clear that there would be no tolerance for this type of behavior from any cadet.

I also prayed for the young man that he could trust the school, want to wake up, and have the courage to return to school. 

The next morning I was doing my daily devotional routine with the Upper Room and the Bible.  For some reason, I stumbled into Romans Chapter 12, verse 16;  “live in harmony with one another.” I wondered if those words might have any bearing for our freshmen.

Before I knew it, I was making my left turn on to Belmont Avenue. Not long after that my first period class started showing up. Luckily, the young man found the courage to attend.  

After getting through some daily requirements, I passed out the article, and I called on various students to read aloud.  

Once the reading was finished, we talked about respect, responsibility, tolerance, expectations, treating people with dignity, and then I wrote on the board, “live in harmony with one another.” 

I asked the students where that quote might have come from?  After taking some guesses, there was a fair amount of surprise when I told them the quote was from the Bible.

When first period was over and as students were filing out, the young man who “didn’t want to wake up” stopped and thanked me. 

 I wanted to tell him don’t thank me. Thank the good Lord for answering a prayer.

Let us pray:  Heavenly Father as we go through each day of living help us to realize the importance of “living in harmony with one another.”  In your name we pray, Amen.

*Author’s note, this piece was written in October 2008. It was shared as a devotional in the Outreach Sunday school class at Trinity United Methodist Church at some point that fall.

245 Square Miles of Needs

It was dark and cold on the morning of February 1. I had to be in the overflow parking lot at Hermitage High School by 6:30. I was going to take a ride on school bus #851. When I arrived, the driver was working through a required safety checklist making sure the bus was ready to be driven. 

Five times from February through the end of May, I rode school busses that took me all around Henrico County. On those rides I saw sections of the county I had never seen before.

Each driver’s assignment was different. I learned quite a bit. 

I learned how students from the western half of the county are transported to high school specialty centers in the eastern half of the county. Experienced the coordination needed to move students to special programs in a variety of educational settings. Saw first hand the care given by the bus drivers and the bus aides in working with special needs students and their parents.  And, experienced the traditional end of the school day ride for elementary, middle, and high school students.

Driving a school bus is no easy task. The application process is rigorous. This includes a driver learning and understanding every mechanical part of the bus. Once an applicant has met the requirements, driving that big yellow bus really tests a driver.

If a person is a daydreamer, attempting to become a school bus driver might not be the correct career path. It takes lots of focus. Eyes on the road, monitoring the passengers (yes, school bus drivers have eyes in the back of their heads!), cuing safety equipment, and listening for important radio communication are daily requirements. 

 Additionally, some busses are equipped with lifts designed to assist students in entering and departing the bus. In these situations, the communication between the driver and the bus aide is critical. 

 On some of the rides, I was amazed at the skills of the drivers as they maneuvered the big yellow box on wheels through incredibly tight spaces. 

Communication via radio is on going. Information between pupil transportation supervisors and drivers is critical. Weather conditions, traffic challenges, and insuring that all routes and runs for the school day and beyond will be covered are a part of this essential dialogue. 

There is no perfection in the choreography of pupil transportation. However, without the coordination of this constant teamwork and planning, the needs of the students, parents, and schools could not be met.

And while these routes did not cover all of the 245 square miles in Henrico County, the school bus rides did leave me with a snapshot that will not be forgotten. There are a lot of needs in our county. 

Meeting those needs is challenging work. But school bus drivers and their aides can be a critical part of meeting these challenges. This is done by building relationships.

During each of the five bus rides, it was clear to me that the drivers had been diligent in establishing a rapport with parents and their children. Establishing that rapport is grounded in carving out a trust.

Trust is a two-way street. 

I saw that trust at work for students,  drivers, bus aides, and parents on every ride. But, I really witnessed those trusting relationships one Friday morning. A young lady with special needs who attended a traditional high school was having a rough morning. She did not want to go school. It took a bit of time, but everyone worked together, and eventually the young lady made the ride to school.

The start of a new school year is upon us. Those 245 square miles of needs have not departed. In fact, as we look to the future, I believe school systems and the counties and cities they serve will be challenged to meet even more student needs.

We will have a better chance of meeting those needs if we can follow the example of the bus drivers and bus aides—build relationships.