How is your thermostat?

Before I drove my mother-in-law back to Connecticut on December 27, I shut the boilers down at our church. The National Weather Service was forecasting mild temperatures for these early days of winter. So, I figured to save the church a few pennies with this shutdown.

Of course, well-intentioned plans in a church might elicit push back.

I will admit the Sanctuary was cool on Sunday morning. But, it wasn’t in my humble opinion bone chilling cold, the temperature outside was 44. My hope was that our congregation could adapt.

As soon as the first service was over, a very nice member of our congregation complained about her cold discomfort in the Sanctuary.

Next, at the 9:30 service, as soon as a couple walked in they made a comment about the Sanctuary being cold.

And to top it off, the head usher at the 11 o’clock service noted on the attendance card that the Sanctuary was cold.

On Christmas Eve, I did not fire up the boiler for the Sanctuary at all. It was too mild outside, plus we had lots of 98.6 bodies in the Sanctuary. That wasn’t the case on the Sunday after Christmas. Lots of our congregation were MIA (missing in action).

So, if it took you several hours to warm up on Sunday afternoon once you departed our church, I apologize. Don’t blame God, you can blame that knucklehead, the Director of Operations, me.

Our building has at least five different types of thermostats. My favorite ones are in some of the classrooms in the children’s wing. The best way to raise and lower the temperature for these thermostats is by using a pencil eraser.

No matter where I have worked in my career, thermostats can be a source of frustration at times. A room can be too hot or too cold. When you factor in our own human thermostats finding comfortable middle ground can be a nightmare for an HVAC technician.

I would imagine that thermostats are not a worry for God and Jesus up in the blue yonder.  But, I wonder what they think about how we manage our personal thermostats on a daily basis down here on earth?

Today, I don’t think it takes too much for our incivility to raise our thermostats to dangerous levels. Often, it appears that a very tiny disagreement can rapidly agitate a person’s thermostat. Sadly, that agitation might make a person react in an unreasonable and sometimes harmful manner. 

 Every year, we seem to have more and more encounters where civility is missing. In those situations, sometimes, a person makes a decision that will potentially not only ruin his/her life, but the lives of others too.

I wonder where the Golden Rule was in that person’s thermostat settings? Maybe God and Jesus are wondering the same as they look down upon us—“Have our friends on earth completely forgotten the Golden Rule?

At times, myself included, I think we have forgotten the basic premise for Matthew 7:12: “you should treat people in the same way that you want people to treat you.”

On Sunday morning, December 29, I didn’t apply that treatment to those in our congregation who were shivering. I was attempting to be a good steward of resources, but I failed.

I’m sure the seasonal changes in temperature will continue to challenge thermostat controls in our church building. Certainly, those who were a bit chilly on Sunday morning hope that I learned a lesson.

But, as I move into the early days of 2020, keeping my own personal thermostat grounded to the basics of the Golden Rule will be an important test too. 

I can’t let the frenzied pace of daily living relinquish the merits of the Golden Rule. In those moments when the pace of life is pushing my thermostat in the wrong direction, I must be willing to hit that pause button.

Pausing to recalibrate my real thermostat—my heart, can’t be overlooked when I need to apply the Golden Rule.

Those Golden Rule moments for my thermostat are out ahead me in 2020. 

I pray I’m ready, how about you?

A God Prank On Christmas Eve

It was 12:58 a.m. when I walked into the house.

Christmas Eve at Trinity was over. Or at least that’s what I thought.

About an hour later, our house phone rang. 

It was the security company for the church. Multiple alarms were going off at the front entrance of the building. I had no clue, so I asked for the police to be called, and told the security dispatcher I was in route. 

Who needs sleep on Christmas Eve? Maybe, I would catch a glimpse of Santa.

When I arrived at Trinity, I found no police cars. Instead, I was greeted by three fire trucks. 

The building that was dark on the interior when I had left it—now had some lights on. A fireman who was driving one of the trucks spotted me and asked if I was responding to the alarm.

My day at Trinity started around 6:30 a.m. I wasn’t on site long. Basically, I opened the building, and then departed for some Santa errands.. 

I returned after 9 to stage chairs in the Welcome Center along with a few other chores. My pal, Jack Berry, an ex-officio member of the altar guild was there to help his wife with some details for communion prep. He also helped with the chairs. In Jack’s profession, he knows quite a bit about staging chairs.

Around 1, I was heading back home for a nap, a shower, and an assault on the head cold that ambushed me.

 I was back at Trinity a little after 3. My mental notes kicked in on some final details. Then, I had orders to save a pew. I wasn’t the only pew holder following orders.

At 4 p.m. the family service started. The Sanctuary was packed and some of the overflow seating in the Welcome Center was taken.

It appears that the family service has become our most popular offering.  And, the demographics show that more than young parents with their children attend.  

We had a tiny technology glitch in the Welcome Center with the monitors—we had sound, but no video.  Our youth director, Bryce Miller, coaxed the technology gremlins to cooperate—after all, this is Christmas Eve.

Soon the video feed was restored. I camped out in the Welcome Center. It was interesting to watch the pattern of meltdowns from youngsters who had already made their parents weary. 

One young lady had insisted on wearing her tap shoes. She was a perfect match for the ceramic tile floor. She clicked and clacked so loudly that her apologetic father picked her up quickly.

Squirmy boys needed to roam. Parents attempted to corral them, but exploring the Welcome Center, and its perimeter hallways was more intriguing.

We had one big crash when the metal top of a trash can accidentally tumbled to the tile. If you had been dozing, you were now fully alert.

There was one miraculous escape. 

The young daughter of our associate pastor scrambled out of the Welcome Center. She made it all the way up the center aisle of the Sanctuary to the chancel. At this stage of the service,  her father was leading the last part of the worship. 

Like all good fathers, Hung Su didn’t miss a beat. He swooped her up in his arms, and held her until the end.

Somehow, the clock hands started moving in his favor, and eventually this service was coming to an end.

A family dinner kept me from attending the Modern worship service at 6, but I was around for the next two traditional services.

There was a large crowd for the 8:30 service. When that service was completed, this crowd didn’t want to go home.   They stayed a long, long time as they chatted in the Sanctuary and Welcome Center with great enthusiasm.

Luckily, we didn’t have to pull out any fire extinguishers with the candle lighting. Although, I think the congregation might be surprised at the mess the wax drippings cause for pew cushions and carpet.

A small crowd was present for the 11 o’clock service. These die hards love this late worship setting.

Soon, the last verse of “Joy To The World” was being sung in candlelight, and the final service for Christmas Eve was over.

Ronnie Johnson, our chief building caretaker, worked with staff and volunteers to try to bring some composure back to the worked over Sanctuary. We made progress, but we left the details to correct before Sunday’s services arrived. 

I think the building wanted us out too. I sensed the building was weary from the intrusion of four straight services. It is a tough old building, but it needs its rest too. 

Ronnie and I had given the building a thorough security walk before we left. When I set the alarm, I knew the building was tight.

About an hour after my departure,  the interior sprinkler system (our fire protection) had other ideas. Something related to water flow inside its pipes and controls wasn’t happy. So, the appropriate sensor tripped, the alarm signaled trouble, and our fire department responded.

Personally, I think this was a God prank. 

Clearly, God wanted to entertain his new born son. Three fire trucks, with shiny equipment, flashing lights, and firemen decked out in all their protective gear walking around a church building—that’s quite a show for an infant.

Maybe someday, I’ll have a little chat with God about how his entertainment choice only wears down weary old grumps like me.

The firefighters outlined the steps I needed to take for our local service company to make the repair. I thanked them for their help, and wished them a Merry Christmas and a quiet rest of the night.

I contacted our service provider for the sprinkler system, and we mapped out a plan for correcting the problem. By e-mail, I notified the staff and key church leadership about this God prank. 

Then, I retraced my steps to turn off lights and re-lock doors.

I reset the security system and headed back to my car. 

Clearly, we had been lucky, no fire, and no sprinkler heads emptied.

During this season of Advent, my brain has been holding on to one line of lyric from the hymn “O Holy Night.” The line—“A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices” has been pinging around quite a bit. But, I will also confess so has “Mele Kalikimaka.”

At this stage in my old, old life I don’t think I have witnessed such a weary world. I sometimes wonder what might bring us to our senses. 

I think it is going to come down to this—finding that thrill of hope, and never letting go of it.

Finding that hope will depend upon the flicker of light in our hearts. That flicker of light  must be an eternal, action hope. Hope is potentially rekindled every Christmas, but in truth hope needs to be reborn everyday.

And that is why we should hold on to John 1:5 every second of the day:  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

That light is the hope for a weary world. 

That light if we allow it can overcome a weary world.

And I think, you, me, we know that, but we must pursue the action found in that light everyday.

Merry Christmas!

Christmas Cookie Baker

Every year, as Christmas approaches, our kitchen turns into a production facility for the making and baking of Christmas cookies. 

Let me say right up front, I have nothing to do with this annual event. I have over those years helped with the clean up, and some of the deliveries, but that is it. 

 Thankfully, my wife, the Commander Supreme, is in charge. I could never reach the level of perfection required to master these recipes. Even if a new recipe is tried, the Commander conquers it. She is a pro. 

These cookies are coveted. 

A fairly reliable source has conveyed to me one friend’s story. When the cookies are delivered, my friend basically hides the plate of cookies from the rest of his family. That is how much he enjoys the Commander’s culinary skills. I have never been offered a bribe for extras, but nothing would surprise me.

There is something special about the aroma of baking cookies in an oven. Those sweet smells drift through the house. They transform the soul.  My favorite aroma comes from the ginger cookies. 

I would imagine that the Commander Supreme has turned out thousands of cookies in our 44 years of marriage. I sense she doesn’t care about the quantity. She is committed to quality.

Even though it was a potentially dangerous line of conversation to pursue, I have suggested that she might take a break one Christmas—no baking of cookies. I don’t remember her response, but I’m still breathing.

In truth, I sense the Commander Supreme will never take a break from baking Christmas cookies. My reasoning is tied to one recipe. 

It is a sugar cookie recipe from the Commander’s great grandmother, Abbie Parker Wood Thompson. She handed off the recipe to the Commander’s grandmother, Bertha Avery Thompson Crosby (grandchildren called her Nammer), who handed it off to her daughter, Elizabeth Crosby Cloud, the Commander’s mother. You get the picture, I’ll spare you the remainder of the Biblical begetting.

Over the years, our children, nieces and nephews, cousins, and children of cousins either in the Commander’s kitchen or their own kitchens have used Nammer’s recipe and made the sugar cookies.

The dough is just the correct texture for cookie cutters, and the Commander has quite a collection of cutters. If you have a favorite seasonal Christmas shape, chances are the Commander has that cutter for you.

Once cut, those shapes are placed on a lined baking tray. Next, comes the fun part—dusting the cookies with all kinds of confections.

On Friday, December 20, 2019, the last batch of sugar cookie dough was going to be used. The Commander had saved just enough for what might be a historic generational day for our family.  

Around the kitchen table were my mother-in-law, Big Liz (who is not big, it is a seniority thing), the Commander Supreme, our son, Andrew, and his two year old daughter, Josie. They had fun. You couldn’t have anything but fun with Josie holding court.

That special family moment came courtesy of the Commander Supreme.

I have never thought that my Commander Supreme ever baked Christmas cookies for adulation. 

No, I think she does this every Christmas because she likes sharing her heart, and I think she is also planting seeds for future bakers. 

I am certain that deep inside her heart—she quietly hopes that the sugar cookie recipe and the experience it brings will live into the future for a long, long, long time through her children and grandchildren.

Come to think of it, a long, long, long time ago a little heart came to life in a miraculous story under a star lit sky. That little heart too was full of love and hope. Hope that his story would live for a long, long, long time too.

Merry Christmas Commander Supreme—I love you and your sweet seed planting Christmas cookie heart! I pray your hope and love will live in the hearts of those you touch for a long, long, long time too.

Never Take For Granted

Without question, time is spinning out of control.

Saturday, December 14 arrived much too quick. Our CARITAS guests will arrive this afternoon for their one week stay at our church.

CARITAS(Congregations Around Richmond To Assure Shelter) started their work with the homeless in the 1980s. The premise  was to find temporary shelter for the homeless by asking churches to be host sites.

 The church facility and their congregation would provide a place to sleep, shower, provide a home cooked meal, a bag lunch, and fellowship. Churches agreed to host this daily routine for two weeks. At the end of the two weeks, the CARITAS clients would move to another church.

While this template has been successful, there are lots of moving pieces. Each evening guests are transported to a church, they spend the night, and the next morning they are picked back up. Some are employed so they find their way to work, and some work with CARITAS staff to find employment. But, each guest has the same goal—finding stable housing.

Our planning for our CARITAS guests started in the late spring. The last few weeks, we have been working with our congregational volunteers and the CARITAS staff to make sure we were ready to host our 32 single women. 

On Saturday morning, a move in crew had assembled in Trinity Hall. We would be unloading bedding and the personal items of our guests. While we waited for the CARITAS truck, we put some finishing touches on the readiness of Trinity Hall and its kitchen.

Right on time the big CARITAS truck arrived. CARITAS also supports a local furniture bank for its clients, so this truck  doubles during the week picking up donated furniture.

The driver properly positioned the truck. He and his assistant gave us some instructions, and then we started.

 Mattresses, bedding, towels, and the personal suitcases for each guest were unloaded off the truck. That’s right, I said personal suitcases. Each guest has one suitcase to cram all of their life’s belonging into.  

After the truck was emptied, we staged the mattresses on the cold, hard, tile floor of Trinity Hall. Next, we made the beds. A bottom sheet, a top sheet, one pillow, and one blanket at each space. 

I thanked this group of volunteers and sent them off into their  Saturday.

The next team of volunteers would arrive around 5 p.m. The Outreach Sunday school class had the responsibility for preparing the evening meal. They also would prepare the bagged lunch for the next day, and stage breakfast items for Sunday morning.

Just before 7 p.m. the big commercial style bus rumbled into the parking lot. 

We introduced ourselves to the CARITAS staff member for the evening and walked him through the set up. He gave approval for how the room was set, and he gave us permission to place a gift on each guest’s bed. These gift bags had been organized by our United Methodist Women and children from Central United Methodist.

Providing dinner had no hitches. Our guests started acclimating to their new environment. Some showered, some asked questions, and some were tired and turned in early.

I was the designated person from our congregation to stay over night. So, I had some organizing to do too. I coordinated the lights out time with the CARITAS leader and secured the doors for the night.

I slept, but I also had forgotten just how hard a concrete floor can be. 

Perhaps, you recall the movie The Blind Side. It is about a future professional football player, Michael Oher.  Oher is taken in by a family during his unstable high school years. The movie is based on the book by Michael Lewis—The Blind Side:  Evolution of a Game.

In the movie, there is a scene that has always made me think. Mr. Oher is shown his bedroom. The mother of the family who has taken him in makes a comment about the newly purchased bed for this massive young man.

He asks his host, “Its mine?” She affirms the bed is now his, and he shares that he had never had one of his own before—that being a bed.

I wonder how many of our guests in Trinity Hall have never had their own bed?

Daybreak always comes before daybreak for me. My internal clock wakes me at 3 this morning. I’m warm and safe on this hard floor.

I reflect. I have always had a bed, a roof, a job. My story is a story of being blessed. 

The stories of our CARITAS guests are unlike mine. For them, something went wrong. Maybe it is was their own fault, maybe someone  else is to blame for their misfortune. I leave that reckoning up to God.

But, you know and I know, we all need a place called home.

American singer/songwriter, Michael Martin Murphey, has enjoyed an interesting career. You might recall his first hit song—“Wildfire” about a horse.

A few years ago, Mr. Murphey helped to rejuvenate his career by recording an album of cowboy songs. And in this trek into the American west, he has even recorded a couple of Christmas albums with a slant toward the cowboy’s life in winter.

HIs second Christmas album Acoustic Christmas Carols is a simple, but beautiful collection of traditional carols. The album opens with an unusual selection—a short rendering of “Home, Sweet Home.”

Murphey’s long time friend, John McEuen, originally from the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band plays exquisite acoustic guitar to back the bare solo vocal. In the intro, McEuen teases with the beautifully aged hymn “Blessed Assurance” and somehow transitions into “Home, Sweet Home.”

If you are as old as me, you might recall some of the words to “Home, Sweet Home.” It dates back to 1823. Murphey only sings these words:

Mid pleasures and palaces though we may roam

Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home

There’s no place like home

There’s no place like home!  (Payne and Bishop)

Those words ring true. There is no place like home.

And yet, our guests in Trinity Hall do not have one.

Do you ever ask yourself a question like this—we have sent space missions to the moon and back, and yet we can’t solve homelessness—why is that?

On Sunday morning, our guests departed for the day. Coffee was a big request at breakfast.

I mistakenly thought I would be able to go home take a shower, change clothes, and come back to church. That never happened, I too much to do around the building.

As I was checking on things in Trinity Hall where our guests would be spending their week, I noticed one bed. It was neatly made. Propped up on the bed’s pillow was a familiar character—Mickey Mouse. He was sitting there relaxed, like he didn’t have a care in the world. Beside him was a sign with these hand printed words:

Happy Holidays Wish You A Merry Christmas 

That bed, Mickey, and the note tugged at my heart.

I wondered about this guest’s life, her story, and her heart.

Her heart had clearly touched mine.

Isn’t that what Christmas should really be about? In a quiet, unassuming manner— touch someone’s heart.

At some point after lunch, I did make it home.

My wife and I had been invited to a neighbor’s home for a birthday celebration and a viewing of a completed addition to their home. So, I took that shower and changed clothes.

At our neighbors, I noticed a properly placed piece of wisdom on a freshly painted wall. Here are the words:

the things

you take for

granted 

someone else 

is praying for

Well, God you’ve done it again. 

For the second time today, you have smacked my heart.

You have taught me that our CARITAS guests have hearts with a better understanding of the hard lessons learned from not taking things for granted. 

Thanks for pointing out to me that my old heart has more learning to do about taking things for granted.

This is an appropriate Christmas gift for me.

May I never take for granted— that there is no place like home.


56, too early

The text message showed up on the evening of Saturday, November 23. Unfortunately, the words were a sad, out of the blue jolt. 

Back in the summer, a nice young couple, Phillip and Rachel, moved into the house beside us on our west side.  The text reported that Phillip’s mother had died.

She was 56. We all know this was way too early to jump up above. 

Yet, life has a way of giving us these unpredictable, unwanted, unfair intrusions, and those of us who are still hanging around have one question—why?

It is a small world. A few years ago, Phillip, his mother, younger siblings, and stepfather lived in the house beside us on our east side.

To make the world even smaller, our son and his wife purchased their first house from Phillip and his wife this past summer too.

We had lost track of Phillip when he graduated from high school. Eventually, his family moved out from next door.

I remember when Phillip was scouting the house on our west side that he wanted to purchase. He brought his mother by to take a look at it.

 I hadn’t seen Phillip and his mother in years. But, I could sense right away Phillip’s passion for returning to the neighborhood, and this was despite my gentle warning that the house would need lots of work. At the same time, I picked up his mother’s wholehearted support of him in the pursuit of the house.

Phillip’s zeal worked, their proposal was accepted. Throughout the summer and into the early fall—a flurry of frenzied activity took place just about every day. The house was being transformed in and out, and on some of those days—Phillip’s mother was present. 

Her presence was both physical and emotional support. Remodeling a tired house can wear a person down, and I suspect Phillip’s mother was just the right cheerleader in some of those moments.

The memorial service for Phillip’s mother took place on Tuesday, November 26. My wife and I planned to attend.

On Monday afternoon, I saw Phillip for just a minute as he was talking with another neighbor at the end of his driveway. I wanted to let him know that if he and Rachel needed anything, all they had to do was just call or knock on our door. While conversing with our neighbor, Phillip was full of tears and emotions. I knew Tuesday’s  memorial service would be tough for him and the family.

The afternoon of November 26 was a bonus day with the weather. A mild temperature, soft blue sky, and patches of color from the annual changing of the leaves filled out the landscape along Arthur Ashe Boulevard.

Inside the Sanctuary, the magnificent old wooden pews filled quickly. This was our first visit to St. Mark’s Episcopal Church.

The memorial service was constructed around eulogies, hymns, Episcopal liturgy, scripture, a homily, and communion.

I always admire when a family finds the courage to share their stories about a lost loved one. Those stories come straight from their hearts. And, I’ll go ahead and say, sometimes those insights are more powerful than the words of the presiding pastor.

For this service, there were three eulogists. 

Each was special, but Phillip’s words about his mother were as stunningly beautiful as his mother. Between his tears, quick gasps to catch a breath, and tiny pauses to attempt to steady himself, Phillip delivered an unforgettable tribute to his mother. It was the perfect blend of raw emotions, stories, and humor.

He captured everything about her. But, most important were the life lessons she shared with him. Those difficult lessons, those motherly conversations, her perspectives stuck to him. Clearly, Phillip was molded and shaped by her. I am certain those essential character guides for life will never depart him. 

In the homily, the pastor basically acknowledged he could not equal the words from the eulogists. But to his credit, he did two things exceptionally well. 

He carefully explained the communion protocols, and made clear that everyone— no matter our religious convictions was welcome to participate. 

And then at the very end of the service, the pastor thanked everyone in attendance. He noted this packed Sanctuary was a real tribute to Phillip’s mother and her family. Love had prevailed.

As long as I live, I will forever remember the closing sentence in his mother’s obituary in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. It stated:  “In memory of Cathleen, her family would be honored if you would be kind to someone who needs it.”

With Thanksgiving in my rearview mirror, and Christmas barreling down on me there could not be a more timely reminder. 

I just wonder how much better I might become as a person if I looked to be kind to someone in need beyond Thanksgiving and Christmas?

Clearly, I need to go and find out.

How about you?

No Business Going

On the morning of July 4, 2019, our neighbor, Barbara Teague, my wife, and I were headed to Lottsburg, Virginia.

Lottsburg is barely a dot on a Virginia map. It is located in Northumberland County up on Virginia’s beautiful Northern Neck.

We had been invited to the getaway home of Jay and David Miller to celebrate the Fourth of July. Barbara’s husband David was helping their youngest daughter and her husband with a cross country drive for a career move to California.

I had no business going to Lottsburg. My internal whine—I had too much to do. Around the house chores, and assorted distractions from my work assignments for my church and local school board were my excuses.

The last time we had traveled to Lottsburg was on a beautiful October Saturday. 

It was for the wedding of Jay and David. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a happier couple. Jay was beautiful. She beamed like that October sun. And David was handsome. His eyes sparkled like the sun reflecting off the waterfront Coan River in their backyard.

In truth, curiosity was quietly nudging me to make this trip. I had seen this section of the Northern Neck in its autumn splendor. I wondered how summer might transform its landscape.

Our drive was uneventful. Barbara is a good driver. Traffic was light.

The small towns and communities along the way were still in place. Some of their appearances were geared toward encouraging consumers to make seasonal summer purchases.

 Plots of land, farmed for generations were in their green mode. I’m guessing the farmers are hoping all of nature’s unpredictable conditions will conspire favorably upon their hard work and yield a bountiful harvest.

I sense the pace out here is slower. That would definitely be the case if you were traveling behind large farm equipment on a two-lane byway. But,  I can see why Jay and David were drawn to this remote quietness and less hectic commotion. 

Well, we arrived. Jay and David greeted us, and quickly introduced us to one of Jay’s childhood friends. She was here with her daughter and her daughter’s boyfriend.

Since the wedding, Jay and David had been busy with assorted projects for the house. One project was significant.

 A garage/storage building had been converted into a guest cottage. I could see Jay and David’s touches in the finished product. The space is now useful and comfortable. If they chose to showcase these improvements, Southern Living magazine would be the perfect place for this repurposing story.

Quite a spread was offered for lunch. After lunch, we eventually found our ways to the dock area and the converging waters of the Potomac River, the Coan River, and the Chesapeake Bay. 

Assorted water toys were available for floating. The water was just the right temperature for a tepid old man. A soft, sandy bottom was a perfect cushion for exploring. There was conversation bouncing off the water, and we kept our eyes on the sky too.

The sun peeked in and out, clouds gathered and departed. Rain looked like a certainty, but it truly never intruded.

As the afternoon moved on, we each found our spots for independence. In this peacefulness, Jay and David were working toward the dinner plans. David had a critical assignment—the making of homemade ice cream. 

A screened in porch off the back of the house was a good spot for chatting and prior to dinner, there was lots of chatter.

Everything about dinner worked to satisfy our appetites, and we all know that only a fool would turn down homemade ice cream on a muggy summer evening. The ice cream was perfect. It would quiet any craving sweet tooth.

Real estate agents preach—“location, location, location”—well, this evening we were in a perfect location for fireworks. As darkness continued to encroach, our eyes were drawn to the sky. No matter where we scanned north, east, west we saw fireworks. Even the next door neighbors provided a show too.

Those distant pops and booms of sparkling, glittering colors shimmered in the sky. Propelled to their optimum height, the hues and shades glimmered as they exploded into the thick, smoky air. 

Those choreographed images, brought satisfaction to the admirers back on earth. We were dazzled by the hang time of the fireworks before the embers streaked downward slowly burning out.

 And the finales were just what they should have been. 

Chaos ignited in rapid fire, sustained bursts, spewing a palette of colors into the darkness, and capturing wonder for all observers. And then, no matter where we looked, the shows were over. 

Selfishly, I thought to myself, I’m sitting on this back porch, no crowds and traffic to battle to get home. I could get use to this.

All that watching of fireworks can wear a person down, and my old body was asking for some sleep. 

On Friday morning, David and I were up early. We were driving back to Richmond. David had an important assignment. He was picking up their grandson to take back to Lottsburg. I was going home to mess with all of those things that were going to be my excuse for not traveling to Lottsburg.

David and I attempted to solve the world’s problems on the ride back. We weren’t successful. 

Last night taking in all of those firework displays made me think about freedom. I wonder if I really understand how lucky I have been in my 66 years of living. I wonder if I truly comprehend how much of what I enjoy pivots off the sacrifice and work of others. People who somehow never stopped pursuing freedom for our country.

Our country is in turmoil in so many ways. I wonder how much of our current struggles might be related to our loss of appreciation for freedom. I know at times, I am guilty,  I take freedom for granted. 

Taking freedom for granted isn’t acceptable. By doing this, I silence my voice. I prevent myself from the potential to make a difference in an American’s life who hasn’t experienced freedom.

I don’t think our forefathers want me to take freedom for granted. 

That stance only weakens the future. 

Every new sunrise brings hope.

In that hope is opportunity.

The question for me is how will I use that opportunity to advance freedom for those who haven’t had my path of privilege?

Clearly, I have no business pushing that opportunity to the side.


"Just Calm Down"

It was good advice. 

I heard the wife say to her husband “just calm down.” They were leaving the aisles of the electrical department in a big box hardware store on a fall Sunday afternoon.

Since October, we have been moving into the time of the year when retailers work consumers into a frenzy.

Days before Halloween, some ginormous retailers without a blink rollout their Christmas displays. This move agitates me. I must remember “just calm down.”

Next, with Thanksgiving on the horizon, advertising related to Christmas shopping is popping up on television. My old brain senses these ads are running much earlier.

 By the time Christmas arrives, these ads will have a repetitive nuisance factor like political ads. This pre-Christmas advertising will make me bonkers. Thank goodness for the mute button on the remote control. “Just calm down.”

Early in November, my wife told me that a local radio station had started playing Christmas music. I love Christmas music, but it was November. I even heard Christmas music being played in the big box hardware store. Now for sure, I am approaching the edge of madness. “Just calm down.”

This early rushing of Christmas drives me crazy. Why all of this rush, rush, rush to thrust Christmas upon us? 

I know the answer, it is all about sales, sales, sales. 

Even at our church the staff is jostled into a somewhat controlled chaos. Planning Advent and Christmas events, some new, some traditional is coming down to the final details. 

Will we be ready? What is our communication plan? Can we give some of those very predictable Advent and Christmas traditions a new twist, a new angle? Can we offer something for everyone?

We started work on our Advent devotional book in the middle of the summer. 

You know Richmond summers— 90 plus degree days are common. Bermuda highs lock down off the North Carolina coast holding the heat in place. The humidity created is as miserable as a combination of Scrooge and the Grinch. Why don’t we work on this book in the middle of winter instead?

Why does this pre-Christmas lunacy do this to me?

The answer is quite simple—I let it.

Every Christmas, I am internally very well intentioned in my self-talk. But, I let the beast, the noise, the roar consume me. I fail.

I wonder what God thinks about all of this hoopla? 

I wonder if he is able to “just calm down”?

Williamsburg Isn’t Flat

A long hill on South English Street on the way back to the finish line.

Around midday on Wednesday, November 20, I left Richmond.  I was driving east to Williamsburg where I would be  attending the Virginia School Boards Association(VSBA) annual convention.

In October of 2018, I had been selected to fill out a school board term for the Henrico County School Board. This 14 month appointment has zipped by me. Hard to believe that I’m attending my second VSBA convention.

This is a good event for Virginia’s school boards, their superintendents, and an assortment of local school board leaders. The keynote speakers and seminars offered are exceptional. Chances are those in attendance will leave with some practical ideas and solutions.

Even though I had 31 years of experience in working with schools in Virginia, I felt a bit overwhelmed at last year’s convention as a rookie board member. This year, I had a better sense of what to expect, plus I would be representing our board as a delegate at the official business meeting of the VSBA.

The opening session on Wednesday afternoon featured Dr. Luvelle Brown, Superintendent, Ithaca City School District in New York. Dr. Brown focused his remarks on equity, but the highlight for me was the student panel who he interacted with. Five high school students from around Virginia shared their observations related toward equity and other important topics like—safety.

Now a confession here, I missed the presentation of Dr. Tim Hodges on Thursday morning. But, I had an excused absence, I ran in the 16th Annual 5K Walk/Run. 

By the time I got cleaned up and grabbed some breakfast, I was back in time for the two seminars I had charted out to attend. I heard Dr. Billy Haun, Executive Director, of the Virginia High School League, attempt to look into the future of high school athletics during the next five years. I learned that no matter the size and location of our school systems, we are all facing similar athletic challenges.

Next, I attended Transforming A High Poverty School Division:  Our Students Don’t Have Time To Wait. Dr. Zeb Talley, Superintendent for Martinsville City Schools, and key leaders from his staff told their story about moving their schools from being non-accredited to accredited. This seminar was outstanding because the presenters captured the challenges they faced while charting their practical approach for turning a dire situation around.

The business meeting of the VSBA was billed as advertised. Unfortunately, the technology gremlins foiled the voting system, so we had to vote the old fashioned way—we held up hand fans. There was interesting discussion on some of the legislative proposals too.

Friday morning came quick with a nice breakfast from the Virginia Lottery, the VSBA’s new president took over the leadership for this session, and then the keynote, Dr. Steve Constantino, was center stage. Dr. Constantino is the real deal. An experienced educator, and a superb storyteller, Dr. Constantino made us laugh, think, and tear up a bit.

For years, I have been one of those crazy people who enjoys going for an early morning run. So running the 5K on Thursday morning was something I was looking forward to. 

Last year, when I ran this 5K, I was fooled by the course. I thought Williamsburg’s terrain out here on the edge of the coastal plain would be flat. But this course, an out and back one on South English Street had some hills, long hills.

And that is ok, because life isn’t perfectly flat, and neither is the work done on a daily basis by public educators. The work of educators is like those hills— up and down. We have our up moments when everything comes together and a student finds success. And then we have those down moments too, when no matter what we try success is absent.

At this very moment in time, I think public educators are under more scrutiny and pressure than maybe in the history of our profession. We face many challenges and obstacles. We are asked to do more and more for societal issues that our students bring with them. Quite simply, school work is tough work, and there are no easy places to work anymore.

In all of this, I worry about our morale in these challenging times. One difficult situation can consume a teacher, a principal, a superintendent, and a school board. Honestly, a difficult set of circumstances can make an educator question—why am I in this profession?

 That is why it is important for everyone in a school building and a school system to look out for their mental and physical health. I can’t tell you how many times my head was cleared of school clutter by taking an early morning run.

On Thursday morning as I turtled down South English Street, the crisp fall air refreshed me, the quietness of the landscape relaxed me, and the hues of the season colored my mind in wonder.

I’m sure everyone who attended the convention left with takeaways, but as you plot out your return to your school systems be sure to carve out time for yourself. Failure to neglect yourself isn’t acceptable.

As I sat at the breakfast table on Friday morning, pings of conversation caught my attention.

In one hug between two former colleagues, I heard these words about their collaborative work—“we overcame a lot.”

That embrace and the comment was a takeaway moment for me. 

Our challenges in public education hinge on our capacity to build relationships. 

Go ahead, name the issue that robs your sleep, that makes you consume mass quantities of an antacid, and makes your want to hide in your office. 

It doesn’t matter what you named, if you can build a relationship, you just created hope. 

Hope is always worth pursuing because hope positions you to be able to overcome what you face.

Yes, the 5K course on South English Street wasn’t flat. It had hills.

Why was I able to overcome those hills? It was pretty simple—my internal relationship with myself willed me.

Just imagine what you will be able to overcome when you create relationships beyond yourself.

Don’t wait. 

Go build relationships. 

Remember, a student is counting on you.

Thanksgiving Trouble

Last Thanksgiving, my wife and I spent Thanksgiving Day  near Hillsborough, North Carolina at the home of my cousin David and his wife Rhonda. 

This was a Pike family gathering, and the first time in many years that we had been away from Richmond for Thanksgiving.

In my youth, the Pikes always gathered in Greensboro. The family of eleven children started by my grandparents is now down to one 80 year old uncle.

 Sustaining these family gatherings has fallen on the shoulders of my cousins. So far, no one has wavered. 

Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, and the Fourth of July are still on our yearly calendars. I guess our parents instilled in us the importance of gathering, sharing food, and fellowship.

At those Greensboro Thanksgivings, all of the food was homemade. Repeat, all of the food was homemade. That doesn’t always hold true today.

My taste buds still recall that homemade goodness along with all of the tempting aromas in Aunt Evelyn’s kitchen. 

And while I always enjoy pumpkin pie, my favorite Thanksgiving dessert was persimmon pudding. 

It is made with wild, frost bitten, sun ripe persimmons, not the large oriental persimmons found in grocery stores. In the South, any wild fruit can satisfy the taste buds when mixed with large amounts of sugar, eggs, sweet milk, cinnamon, and flour.

But a word of caution about wild grown persimmons, never eat an unripe one. Even Huckleberry Finn knew this. It is an experience your mouth will never forget. Eating an unripe persimmon probably would cure anyone who consistently utters foul language.

Last year, as our Thanksgiving gathering came to a close, my wife and I did something we have never done before—we went shopping. 

Never in my 66 years of living have I been shopping on Thanksgiving afternoon, and I have never been shopping on what we now call Black Friday.

Let me confirm for you, I will never, and I know I should never say never, but I’m going to say it— I will never go shopping again on Thanksgiving.

Perhaps, you are wondering, Bill, why will you never go shopping again on Thanksgiving? 

My answer is very simple—the cashier who checked us out.

In a very pleasant conversation with him, we learned that his Thanksgiving meal would not take place until after the store had closed, and that was still hours away.

It hit me that every employee in the store was probably in the same set of circumstances, and for that matter the same was true for every retail worker across America on Thanksgiving.

This cashier and his fellow employees should be at home, and so should I.

What was I thinking? 

How did I lose my way?

How did I lose my focus?

It was way back in 1863 when Abraham Lincoln established a federal holiday proclaiming:  “Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.” (Wiki)

 I’m pretty sure there is no way Honest Abe could have predicted that his simple day for giving thanks would become dominated by retailers. 

But, I sadly concede it has.

I wonder if God has conceded this too?

I’m sure God has a team of data miners up in the blue yonder who could chart for him  the starting point and the history of this surge in retail madness.

But, God doesn’t need his data miners to affirm what he can already see.

I would think paradigm shifts like this make God a restless sleeper. 

New wrinkles crop up on his time worn face.

Probably his antacid intake is at an all time high.

His random headaches have become migraines.

Staff meetings with his leadership team are tense.

And conversations with his only son require a box of Kleenex.

In those conversations, God beats himself up—why didn’t I see this trend coming, how could I let this happen, I must be losing my touch, why wasn’t I proactive, why was I so blind?

Enough God—stop beating yourself up— enough.

It is our question to ask, when are we going to say enough to all of those ways that distract us at Thanksgiving, and for that matter Christmas too?

Proverbs 5:21 states:  “For your ways are in full view of the Lord, and he examines all your paths.”

Perhaps last Thanksgiving, through the cashier God was nudging me to examine my ways, my paths.

That cashier’s story changed my perspective.

Maybe that tiny conversation with the cashier can change the Thanksgiving thinking of others too.

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.