Day Three: More Budapest

Despite still adjusting to local time and our internal clocks, we woke early on Thursday, October 13.

Waking early is a requirement as shoreline excursions start loading at 8:15.

Guests have three breakfast options on the ship: Cafe Breakfast, Continental Breakfast, and Breakfast. If you love breakfast, this is a win for you.

My favorite was the breakfast. The choices were endless, I could have stayed there all morning. I enjoyed trying the European granola, Muesli. It was served out of a large bowl in what appeared to be a mixture of a light cream and yogurt—delicious.

Our family assembled for breakfast in stages, and we were all conscience of making sure we would gather back in the lobby for our shore excursion.

Viking knows how to organize their guests.

With our personalized audio receivers and earpieces, we made the walk to a loading area where buses and a guide were waiting for us.

The guides magically connect the audio receivers to their receiver. They give us some basic information, and we loaded into the buses.

All along the route to our first stop, the guides provide us insights about what we see.

Throughout this trip, I will learn about the large open squares in the cities. These open spaces are the life of each community. They are dominated by lots of pedestrian traffic with public transportation woven in, and stunning architecture.

This morning, we are stopping at Heroes Square. On our Wednesday afternoon tour, our guide made reference to 1896. That year is important in Hungarian history. In 896, the Hungarian state was formed, and a thousand years later, in 1896 construction started on Heroes Square.

Immediately, my eyes are drawn to statues. The heart of the square is marked by the 110 feet tall Millennium monument. To either side of the monument are two colonnades that capture additional Hungarian chieftains and national leaders.

Heroes Square Budapest, Hungary (Photo by Bill Pike)

Also, woven into the landscape of the square are City Park, the Museum of Fine Arts, the Palace of Art, and the Millennium Underground Railway, Metro 1. The underground railway was started here to provide transportation to City Park and to preserve the beauty of Andrassy Avenue.

When we arrive back at the ship from this excursion, we have some good news—our daughter, Elizabeth has arrived. She is settled into her room, and ready to join us for lunch.

And speaking of lunch, everyday, the chef and his team prepared a different soup. Each day of the trip, that was my lunch, a bowl of soup, some crusty bread, a Bitburger pilsner on draft, and the dessert special.

One appreciation we developed was for the Viking guides. They were knowledgeable about giving us suggestions on how we might fill an afternoon, if we opted not to participate in a pre-planned excursion.

On this beautiful afternoon, we opted to take a suggested long walk on the hilly side, the Buda side of the city.

We crossed the Danube at the nearby Liberty Bridge and started our exploring. No matter where our eyes cast, in that scope of vision, there was something to catch our attention.

At a leisurely pace, we moved along stopping to explore as needed while snapping photos.

My take away for the afternoon was the Matthias Church and the Fisherman’s Bastion.

The construction of the Bastion’s walls started in the 1700s. Historians note that local fishermen were a part of guarding these walls where a small Fishtown or Watertown developed. The Bastion was severely damaged during World War II, but was gradually restored after the war.

Matthias Church is impressive from the exterior and interior. Our self-guided tour of the interior had endless points of interest. No matter where my feet took me I was overwhelmed by the history and the craftsmanship.

Spiraling window, Matthias Church (Photo by Bill Pike)

Gradually, we worked our way back to the ship. More pretty views greeted us on this pleasant October afternoon.

Before dinner that evening, all guests were invited to gather in the Lounge for a toast from the ship’s Captain.

At dinner, I steered away from the traditional menu, and always chose from the regional fare that was offered. And, at dinner, we started to get to know our assigned waiters, Mehi and Jazz.

In another life, they could have been stand up comics, or a part of the Saturday Night Live cast. Even though I’m certain neither Mehi, nor Jazz would know who Eddie Haskell was, both waiters clearly graduated from the Eddie Haskell school of schmoozing guests. Their humor kept us laughing during our meals. Mehi and Jazz called us “honey” and referred to Betsy’s mother as the queen.

After dinner, we were all invited to the top deck of the ship for the Budapest Sail Away. Our Program Director Mario provided comments for us about the sites we were gracefully passing.

Departing Budapest at night (Photo by Bill Pike)

The lit city gave us another perspective of Budapest, and its buildings and their architecture. The night lighting formed a new beauty and awareness compared to the sunlight from earlier in the day.

No matter how light is cast upon Budapest, its beauty is obvious. I will treasure our time here.

Nor will I forget that from 1949 until 1989, Hungary was under Communist rule. I sensed from our guides a heart cherished relief that the Communist control is over.

I’m certain that hard earned freedom will never be forgotten for those who lived through those forty years.

But despite the splendor of the city and all its charms, on our first afternoon I saw firsthand that Budapest like all cities has some challenges.

As our guide led us into the city, we passed a homeless man sitting on a bench.

He was slumped over, head down, smoking the remnants of a cigarette.

I think if he was standing up, his thin frame would have topped him over six feet. His straight dark black hair came down just past the collar of the curry colored suit jacket he wore.

Sadly, as I walked past, I caught a whiff of his body odor, and I could see his unclean hands. However, he made no effort to ask for any assistance from the Viking guests.

By now, you must be thinking to yourself, “Bill, why are you describing this homeless man in Budapest to us?”

Here I am a long way from home, and no different from home, I encounter a homeless person.

Two things come to mind, I wonder about his story, and the second is the reality of life—all it takes is one wrong move, and I could be that man on the bench on the banks of the Danube, or the streets of Richmond.

“I gotta find Bubba”

I can see the headline: Church employee charged with disturbing the peace, civil disobedience, and inciting a riot.

That’s the way I felt on the morning of Friday, September 29.

I was at a hardware retailer in the city on Broad Street. I needed to replace the tires on a church wheelbarrow. On my walk to find the tires, I encountered a display of Christmas trees and decorating merchandise.

If Mayberry deputy, Barney Fife, gets frosted over a new postage machine that sells stamps, then I can get frosted over the retail rush to shove Christmas at us in September.

Back on September 29, Halloween was 31 one days away, and sandwiched between Halloween and Christmas is the slowly eroding national holiday Thanksgiving.

According to the National Retail Federation spending for Halloween in 2022 is expected to be $10.6 billion. Additionally, the National Retail Federation defines the holiday season as November 1 through December 31, and in all of their predicted sales data and statistics, Thanksgiving isn’t mentioned.

Nor is Thanksgiving Day mentioned in the famous Lectionary, where pastors all over America find their suggested scripture readings to prepare their Sunday sermons.

What does that tell us about ourselves, our thinking, our priorities, our thankfulness?

Are we more captured by trick or treating, and Black Friday sales, than we are for giving thanks for farmers, truck drivers, grocery store workers, and that guy on the back burner, God?

Come November, my old bones and my soul experience an internal gravitational pull.

For many years, our family spent Thanksgiving in Duck on North Carolina’s Outer Banks. That seasonal pull is to the edge of the Atlantic’s early morning surf as it collides with a sandy shoreline.

I’m there in waders, layered in clothing to keep me warm, and I have heaved the baited surf rod line into the breaking dawn of a faint orange light.

Dawn arriving Duck, North Carolina (Photo by Bill Pike)

The fish ignore me, and that’s ok for now. For I’m consumed by the sheer beauty of the evolving sky, the crash of salted waves, and the dives of teasing shorebirds in pale light.

Some mornings on that shore, as I look north in the predawn light, I can see the beacon from the Currituck Beach Lighthouse. That man made light, and the light of the rising sun remind me of John Chapter One Verse Five: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

Let me put this disclaimer out there— I am not a theologian, nor a Biblical scholar.

I’m a rapidly aging grumpy geezer, who cares deeply about Trinity, but who does not always agree with or understand the “so-called” United Methodist church, and for that matter, you can include in my failures my inability to always understand God and the Bible.

And yet, something draws me to that scripture: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

Perhaps, you recall a scene in the movie, Forrest Gump. Lieutenant Dan has his platoon out on patrol. It is overcast, raining, and the platoon is in open terrain.

Without any notice, as Forrest stated, “Somebody turned off the rain and the sun came out.” Within seconds of that transition to bright sunlight, the platoon was in a deadly ambush.

The firefight was so intense that Lieutenant Dan ordered his men to pullback. Forrest took off running, and he quickly realized he had retreated too far.

He ran back to the scene of the ambush, and immediately started to carry his fellow wounded platoon members to a safe evacuation spot. Forrest does this multiple times.

He even stumbles upon a wounded Lieutenant Dan. Who despite his protests, Forrest is able to carry the Lieutenant out of danger.

Then Forrest realizes that his best friend, Bubba is missing.
At that point, Forrest disobeys Lieutenant Dan’s orders. As Forrest is re-entering the dense underbrush, he yells back at his Lieutenant, “I gotta find Bubba.”

In the darkness of that ambush, Forrest is a light to the platoon.

Right now, someone in our neighborhood, county, city, state, country, world, or maybe in this sanctuary is silently yelling, “I gotta find Bubba.”

But what their soul is really conveying is this, “I gotta find Jesus.”

It is no secret that I am an early riser.

I start my day with the Upper Room. I read the scripture lesson, then the devotional, and if that devotional really speaks to me, I’ll log in to the Upper Room website and leave a comment of thanks to the author.

And on some mornings, I make a prayer request on the website. If you make a prayer request, you will be asked to offer a prayer to someone who has posted a prayer on the public wall.

On the morning of October 30, I read the following words on that prayer wall: “Lord help me. I can’t take much more. You know the situation and my feelings. I am struggling.” Amen

That cry for help touched my heart. I offered a prayer. In that person’s plea, I hear—“I gotta find Jesus.”

Singer/songwriter, Billy Joel, in his song “River of Dreams” writes: “I hope it doesn’t take the rest of my life until I find what it is that I’ve been looking for.”

In the Bible, there are countless examples of people who with sincere urgency are searching, trying to find what it is that they have been looking for.

I’m drawn to the stories of the woman at the well, the man with leprosy, the young daughter of Jairus, the man lowered through the roof, and maybe for me my frustrating favorite, the bleeding woman.

For twelve years this woman had suffered from bleeding, no one had been able to cure her.

In the crush of a crowd that swarmed around Jesus, with complete human desperation, this woman believes that if she can just touch Jesus, that all of her suffering will disappear.

She works her way through the crowd, comes up behind Jesus, touches his cloak, and instantly, the bleeding stopped.

The woman must have felt deep internal joy, but now she has a bigger problem.

Jesus stops in his tracks, and asks, “Who touched me?”

From the crush of the crowd around him come quick denials.

His disciple, Peter, attempts to say to Jesus, “Look at this mass of humanity around you, anyone could have brushed up against you.”

But Jesus is adamant, “Someone touched me; I know that power has gone out from me.”

Perhaps, it was in the strength of her new found healing, that the trembling woman comes forward and falls to the feet of Jesus. She explains why she had touched him.

At that point, Jesus says to her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace.”

I love that story, but I will confess, I struggle with it.

I’m agitated by the instant healing from a simple touch.

I want to know why that healing touch of Jesus eludes those who surround us who are desperately in need.

Where is that touch in Ukraine?

Where is that touch in the unstable mind of the next mass trigger puller?

Where is that touch for the person battling cancer for a second time?

Where is that touch in our divided church, our divided country?

And while I’m whining away, what I really need to be asking is this: Bill, where are you, where is your faith?

“I gotta find Bubba.”

“I gotta find Jesus.”

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

My wife is a prolific reader.

Quite often, she will hand a book over to me that she has completed.

My reading pace is turtle slow. I plod through a book.

I keep a highlighter with me as I read a book. That way I can capture a word, sentence, or paragraph that resonates with me.

I wonder if you have ever come across a book passage like this: “There was no God for me anymore. My God had forsaken me. My God was a punishing God. My God had failed and left me to die. I had no use for God. Forgive me, Mama. I thought to myself as I threw the Bible under the bed. I had no use for it. All of it was a lie.” (Hinton, page 105)

Those words came from Anthony Ray Hinton as he sat on the edge of his bed in his cell on Alabama’s death row.

For nearly thirty years, Mr. Hinton was an inmate. Mr. Hinton was wrongly convicted of murdering three people. His book is titled: The Sun Does Shine.

Luckily for Mr. Hinton, a very gifted attorney, Bryan Stevenson, kept battling the darkness of Mr. Hinton’s case. Mr. Stevenson always ended his conversations or meetings with these words for Mr. Hinton: “hang in there.”

No matter where we look in our world, it is becoming tougher and tougher for people to hang in there.

“I gotta find Bubba.”

“I gotta find Jesus.”

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

Yes, tomorrow is Thanksgiving, and across America there will be hundreds of volunteers who will feel an internal gravitational pull to be a part of providing a thanksgiving meal to the poor, the homeless, the downtrodden, the outcast, the addict, the lost, and the person who can’t take much more.

Over the course of the last several weeks, our congregation felt a gravitational pull, flood buckets and Thanksgiving meal bags were filled and distributed.

That heart work from you will be a light in the darkness of a stranger’s life.

You became this stranger’s Forrest Gump, or even better the embodiment of Jesus.

What made you respond to those requests? What nudged you? What pulled you?

Those are questions worth pondering because there are times when you, me, we, us choose not to respond to the nudge or the pull.

From now until Christmas, and despite our efforts to push it back, a chaotic craziness will consume us.

This madness has its own gravitational pull.

This seasonal circus will aggravate us, test our patience, cause frustration, push us to pursue an unattainable seasonal perfection, make us cranky, and zap our energy.

At some point in this lunacy, you have will have a mercurial meltdown.

And when that happens, a voice deep inside of you will whisper—“why, why are you doing this?”

Well, the answer to the meltdown can be traced back to that hardware retailer down on Broad Street on September 29.

But here is the real challenge for you, me, we, us in the coming collision with Christmas—it’s not about us.

No, its about the darkness.

The darkness is trying to overcome us.

We can’t let that happen.

We must confront the darkness.

We must find the courage to counter the darkness.

By countering the darkness, we have the potential to bring more good, more light, and more hope into the life of people like the person who wrote these desperate words on October 30: “Lord help me. I can’t take much more. You know the situation and my feelings. I am struggling.”

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

When you least expect it, an internal gravitational pull will be coming to you from Jesus.

That pull will require your soul to gently disrupt your peace, to be disobedient for the right reasons, and to incite a riot within you.

Drop your fear of the darkness, step into its edge, and shine your light.

Somewhere out there, a friend, a neighbor, a co-worker, a stranger is hoping that the darkness will not overcome the light of your kind soul.

I gotta find Bubba.

I gotta find Jesus.

You, me, we, us gotta push our light into the darkness.

Jesus is counting on us, his touch can’t do it all.

Remember: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

Author’s note: I had the honor of being the speaker at our annual Thanksgiving Eve service at Trinity United Methodist Church in Henrico County, Virginia on Wednesday November 23. The words shared here are what I presented.

Room 204 is closed today

Per the order of the Society For The Moderation Of Glitter(SMG), Room 204 is closed today Wednesday, October 26, 2022. The closing is due to excessive glitter contamination levels.

Press Release Wednesday, October 26, 2022


On the afternoon of Tuesday, October 25, 2022, Regional Emergency Services Personnel (RESP) were summoned to the main floor of Trinity UMC Preschool.

Upon arrival in Room 204, emergency personnel found a substitute building caretaker in the corner of the room with tremors. The worker was stuttering out the barely audible words: “it came back, it came back.”

Emergency responders immediately diagnosed the worker with pre-seasonal acute grand glitteritus.

Glitteritus is a condition that temporarily impairs building caretakers when excessive amounts of glitter from student art projects becomes lodged in carpet fibers. Despite careful vacuuming, glitteritus is triggered when caretakers realize their efforts to remove the glitter are not being effective.

To counter the glitteritus, emergency responders rush caretakers in the acute grand condition to the nearest local craft brewery. Research has shown that a drip line IV linked to a seasonal beer like an Oktoberfest reduce the manifestation of the glitteritus. Craft brewers have been trained to work cooperatively with emergency responders in making the proper IV line connections to the appropriate keg.

Coming out of the pandemic, RESP expects to have a busy season responding to calls related to pre-seasonal acute grand glitteritus.

During the pandemic researchers from the Vacuum Institute of America (VIOA) have been experimenting with vacuum cleaners powered by the same jet engines found on the Boeing B777-300. Those jumbo engines safely take passengers on transcontinental flights.

Additionally, the Association For Building Caretakers(AFBC) is working with state and federal legislators to introduce state and federal laws that would limit the amount of glitter that students can use for seasonal art projects.

RESP responders expect the contaminated classroom to be closed for one full school day. This will allow representatives from VIOA to conduct a real time test on the carpet of the classroom.

Progress is being made with vacuum cleaners powered by the B777-300 engines. Noise reduction has improved, but officials are still concerned about classroom items that the powerful vacuum sucks up that are larger than glitter particles.

My nemesis (Photo by Bill Pike)

Back to school, back to church

New school year start times vary across America. Some begin before Labor Day, and others start after this holiday.

Photo by Bill Pike

The first Sunday after Labor Day, often signals the start of a new church year.

Photo by Bill Pike

From a variety of angles, schools and churches share some similarities.

For example, the COVID-19 pandemic was an unexpected disruption. It created multiple levels of tension. School and church leaders often found themselves in impossible conflicts with parents and congregations.

In schools, the imperfect switch from in person instruction to virtual learning resulted in students falling behind academically and socially. It will take schools and students years to recover from this lost instruction.

With churches, a similar struggle evolved from the pandemic. In trying to protect their congregations, some churches alienated members with stringent protocols. Enforcing these health protections pushed some churchgoers to leave their church.

More similarities between schools and churches are seen in the areas of: human sexuality, finances, safety, and public opinion.

Even before the pandemic, schools and churches often found themselves on public display. Quite honestly, public perceptions can make decision making by school and church leaders a no win situation.

So what must school and church leaders do in order to regain ground lost from the pandemic?

A good starting point for school and church leaders is investing in the time to listen.

Whether they are right or wrong, communities and congregations want to be heard. Leaders who fail to take the time to listen will find framing the teamwork needed for future change difficult.

Schools and churches in their communication must always be honest and transparent, especially when plans go wrong. Telling the truth is an opportunity to rebuild trust.

In their communities, schools and churches must become better at conveying their stories of success even in difficult situations. Not sharing stories of success is a missed opportunity to build relationships.

Sadly, safety continues to be a concern for schools and churches. Both are too familiar with shooting tragedies. These tragedies are birthed in their communities. How might churches and schools collaborate to improve safety in both environments?

Also linked to safety is the physical condition of school and church buildings. Neglected or delayed maintenance only creates more problems in providing conducive environments.

Churches and schools require sustained financial support to stay open. Over the last several years, studies of church data from the Pew Research Center have documented the decline in church attendance. Shrinking attendance impacts the giving capacity of congregations.

For school systems securing their fair share of tax revenues can be a challenge. This is especially a concern when the needs of the community are significant at all levels of operation.

Neither churches nor schools are immune from challenges related to human sexuality.

For churches, some denominations have split over doctrines and policies related to human sexuality. These differences create stress and division. In the end, these divisions hurt people and contradict the premise that churches are supposed to be grounded in “love” for all.

Sometimes lawsuits related to human sexuality rights have required school systems to adjust policy manuals and student codes of conduct. These by law changes can also impact the physical facilities of a school and require special training for school staff.

In the August 2022 edition of the North Carolina based Our State magazine, I read an interesting story about chef, Rob Clement.

Mr. Clement makes the point from his early work in restaurants about the ability to be “adaptable.” And he carries that further by emphasizing the importance of the “pivot.” Mr. Clement states: “In a restaurant kitchen, every minute is a pivot, I don’t know how not to pivot.”(Our State, p.116)

As schools and churches work to recover ground from the pandemic, they need to ask these internal questions: “Are we adaptable, and can we pivot?”

If schools and churches can’t adapt and pivot, that leads to another question: are their traditional models of leadership and operation outdated?

Having worked in public schools and a church, I sense both are capable of pivoting and adapting, but implementing real systemic change can be a challenge. Sadly for churches, change is difficult.

As schools and churches fully reopen, I believe their ability to regain lost pandemic ground will depend upon their willingness to learn more about how to adapt and pivot.

Our communities still need schools and churches.

However, if schools and churches expect to be a vital part of our future, their leaders and their communities must not fear change.

Fearing change reduces the ability to adapt and pivot.

If a chef can adapt and pivot in the kitchen of a restaurant, then our schools and churches must be capable of the same flexibility.

Aren’t we all odd buckets?

Flood buckets on pallets waiting to be loaded.
(Photo by Bill Pike)

On the morning of Friday, November 11, I suspect some of the bucket brigade who showed up at the Virginia Conference office to move and load flood buckets are a bit stiff, maybe achy in the arms and shoulders, and moving a little slower. That is to be expected when 3,752 buckets containing cleaning supplies are moved from storage areas to wooden pallets and loaded on to a tractor trailer.

In truth, I was one of those volunteers who showed up to help, and yes, I took a couple of ibuprofens this morning. Apparently, we had close to 30 volunteers. It was a good group of women, men, and staff from the conference office.

The experts who directed us were kind and patient. There is a precision to loading pallets with buckets, and then using shrink wrap to encase the stacked buckets. Our friendly leaders reminded us:  expose the corners on the pallets, stack three high, keep handles to the inside, and don’t rush, this isn’t a competition.

Shortly after 9, we started, and as we approached 10:30, storage rooms in the building and two U-Haul box trucks had been unloaded. With each pallet properly stacked and wrapped, forklifts were used to lift the pallets onto the ttractor-trailer

 While the buckets all appeared to be uniform in height that wasn’t always the case. The orange and blue colored buckets provided or purchased from those two big hardware retailers were a perfect match. But, sprinkled into the donations were some different colored buckets and their height didn’t match the orange and blue. As the moving and loading progressed, those different buckets were named odd: “We need some odd ones to finish offloading this pallet, let’s set the odd ones off to the side for now.”

That naming made me think about the volunteers for this task, and internally, I asked myself– aren’t we all a bit odd?

 After 47 years of marriage, I’m certain my wife would affirm that I have some oddities.

When I take a look at my fellow volunteers, we are a diverse group, some might consider us odd for participating in this loading.

Then I thought about the people in need who will receive the kits, how might they be odd? Is it because they are the victims of a natural disaster?

And I pushed my thinking a bit further, isn’t the Bible full of odd people? Noah, Job, Sarah come to mind.

How about Jesus and the people he encountered?

In recruiting his disciples, do you think it odd that these men basically dropped what they were doing to follow Jesus? Think about the people in the parables, were they seen as being odd by society?

We might all be odd buckets, but we have something in common, our hearts.

Yes, it was our hearts that pushed us to fill a bucket with cleaning supplies, drop it off at our church, and then volunteer to insure the buckets were properly secured on a pallet, and with great care loaded on a tractor-trailer.

Relax, in a couple of days, the soreness will exit our bodies.

And yet, I hope our hearts will never forget the teamwork and energy that took place in the parking lot of the Conference Office on a just right fall morning.

 Because in the long run, it is the work of the heart that makes a difference in the lives of all odd buckets.

Author’s note: I was honored to have this piece in the November 15 edition of the Advocate, the weekly newsletter from the Virginia Conference of the United Methodist Church.

Day Two: Hartford, Dulles, Frankfurt, Budapest and one hiccup

Sleep came easily on Monday night October 10. The long drive from Richmond to West Hartford made that a certainty.

But, if we thought Monday was a long day, today, Tuesday, October 11 would be even longer.

On Tuesday morning, we weren’t sleepy heads. We had to make sure we were ready to depart to Bradley International Airport right after lunch. My mother-in-law was organized, but she had a few last minute needs, so I ran a couple of quick errands for her.

When I returned, we made sure that our luggage and our carry-on bags were ready. We did a final check for purses, wallets, passports, COVID-19 vaccination cards, and ID’s. Shortly after lunch, we loaded the car and drove to Bradley Field.

We took the non-interstate route. As we neared the airport entrance, an impatient driver was just off our rear bumper. At the last stoplight just off the airport’s grounds, he passed us, sped through the red stoplight at a significant intersection, and flicked his middle finger back at us. The irresponsibly reckless were still with us.

The Commander Supreme had found a reasonably priced vendor where we could park our car with valet service to and from the airport. Getting to the terminal was easy, and our first check-in with United Airlines went well. A wheelchair had been requested for my mother-in-law. Once the wheelchair and the attendant arrived, this person wove us behind the scenes to get us to the departing gate.

Prior to the trip, the Commander Supreme spent significant time reworking our seating assignments. One day everything worked well, but several days later we would be notified of another change. Those multiple changes created stress and tension for the Commander.

The flight down to Dulles outside of Washington, D.C. went well. At Dulles, the security and the screening ticked up a notch. But once again, traveling with Betsy’s mother afforded us quicker access in the screening process. For the flight from Dulles to Frankfurt, Germany we were able to board the plane early and get settled in our seats.

The B777-300 is massive. Everything about the exterior of the plane is big. Huge engines, wings, tail structure, and tires. While the interior of the plane seems wide and endless that interior size is deceptive.

In truth, I’m dreading this flight. Crunched in an uncomfortable middle seat for hours, flying across the Atlantic at night, and hoping that the pilot and the crew keep this big bird aloft.

I have distractions a book, Stealing Home, by Eric Nusbaum, a non-fiction book about how the Los Angeles Dodgers’ stadium was built in Chaves Ravine in Los Angeles, the flight tracker, and I can always watch a movie.

We are close to our 5:25 p.m. departure time, as the 777-300 gradually lifts off the runway. It is a long time until our predicted touch down in Frankfurt at 7:20 a.m.

Early on in the flight, the flight tracker captures my attention. We are at 35,000 feet, going well over 500 miles an hour, and I notice the temperature outside the plane is exceptionally cold, many, many negative degrees below zero. I also note the speed of the tailwind, and how at some point the tailwind disappears and the plane is barreling into a headwind. And, of course, there is always some chop, turbulence to keep everyone alert and in touch with Jesus.

At some point a meal was served, I don’t recall what I ate. To try to make you sleepy and cozy, United Airlines dimmed the cabin lights and provided everyone with a lightweight blanket.

I decided to watch the movie, Elvis. In truth, I don’t know a lot about Elvis, but the movie captures the ups and downs of his short life. Austin Butler, the actor who portrays Elvis, did his homework. His mannerisms and gyrations match what Elvis created all those years ago.

But, the real reason, I watched this movie is Tom Hanks. I have always admired his work, and Mr. Hanks does capture the complicated personality of Colonel Parker who was Elvis’ manager.

I’m not sure of the precise moment when the Atlantic disappeared, but the flight tracker had us arching over land. Soon my mother-in-law was commenting about the headlights from early morning traffic as we made the approach into Frankfurt.

Departing the cabin of a large jet is sheer human madness. Airlines should contract with retired elementary school teachers on how to effectively and efficiently get grumpy travelers off the plane.

Not sure how, but we cleared the security and passport checks into Germany. I recall being asked to remove my hat so that the clerk could insure that the bald head on my mug shot matched the bald head in person.

The German airline, Lufthansa, was responsible for flying us into Budapest. For this flight, the Commander and her mom were seated together, but I was solo way in the back. This was a ninety minute flight. I was looking forward to getting out of this airplane.

Pretty cloud cover Frankfurt to Budapest Photo by Bill Pike

The approach into the Budapest airport was pretty. The Danube River couldn’t be missed.


Assuming we knew where we were going, the attendant with Betsy’s mother, quickly took off to the baggage area. We lost them, and we made several wrong turns trying to get to the baggage area. Eventually, we made the right steps and arrived, and Betsy’s mother was already there. Good news is our luggage made it, and at about the same time, the Commander’s brother and his wife walked into baggage claim too.

With Betsy’s mother and our luggage, we quickly found Viking personnel with their red signs. They arranged us and our luggage by groups, and soon we were in a van heading toward the ship.

We saw a lot on that ride to the river. Traffic cooperated, and soon we were dockside unloading and entering the ship for check in.

Our room wasn’t ready, but Viking personnel took control of our luggage and whisked us into the dining room for lunch.

During lunch, we learned about what would turnout to be the only hiccup for the entire trip. Our youngest daughter, Elizabeth, would not be arriving today.

On Tuesday, she was aboard her plane in Raleigh waiting to depart for Toronto. Unfortunately, the operator of the jetway, clunked the plane. When a jetway clunks a jet airliner, a engineer is called to inspect the plane for structural damage.

Of course, airframe engineers aren’t exactly on call. This interruption resulted in Elizabeth getting her luggage and going back home. She was not going to make the connecting flight in Toronto.

To her credit, Elizabeth diplomatically badgered Viking to secure her a better flight.

After lunch, our rooms were ready, and we got settled in.

Viking wastes no time in getting you acclimated to the city.

Early in the afternoon, we assembled in the ship’s lobby for a short walking tour of the neighborhood where the ship was docked.

Each guest has an electronic device with an ear plug. This allows you to hear clearly the tour guide.

Our tour guide was a resident of Budapest (pronounced Bu da pesh), and he was excellent. In fact, we found all of our guides on the trip to be exceptional. Each knew their history, but more importantly they knew the flow of their cities, and they wove in witty humor, and some current political insights too.

The heart and soul of this trip is Danube River. Clearly, no river, no trip, but this journey will feature the cities and landscapes on its majestic banks.

In our brief afternoon tour, I immediately was captured by the architecture, including the design of two bridges close to the ship, and the legendary great/central market hall.

Not long after the completion of the tour, Abby and Art arrived.

Before we knew it, we were seated in the dining room for our first dinner. Immediately, the waitstaff won us over with their attention to detail and humor.

After dinner, we took a walk. We crossed the river at the bridge nearest the ship, and followed the river path to the next bridge. We crossed this bridge and made it back to ship.

The beauty of Budapest revealed itself even more as the lights of the city etched out the landmarks and cast reflections on to the river’s surface.

We were looking forward to our second day in Budapest, but we needed a good night of sleep too. Hopefully, we would find it.

Night shot of bridge crossing the Danube River in Budapest photo by Bill Pike

Church Doors

When I was growing up in Burlington, North Carolina, a couple of miles from our home up Route 7( now called West Front Street) was Elon, home to Elon College.

Elon College has been magnificently transformed into Elon University. That transformation illustrates that leadership, vision, and pennies can be a powerful partnership.

Elon was a sleepy speck of a town. A railroad track ran behind the college. To either side of the steel rails ran parallel dirt and gravel roads.

The one sided storefronts of Elon also sat across from the college. I know there was a barber shop, some kind of grill, and a small grocery store was down a side street.

I can remember eating cheese dogs at the grill. A rectangular shaped block of cheese was shoved into a hot dog bun, and then smothered in chili. Horrible for the health of the heart, but it was tasty.

Just past the storefronts, on the west side of North Williamson Avenue sits Elon Community Church. According to the church website that building opened in 1959. Prior to that opening, the church met in various spaces at Elon College.

On the morning of Thursday, August 11, 2022, I was meeting my sister there. We were going to drive together to visit our mother’s niece, Martha, and her husband, John.

We had a good visit with Martha and John. Our conversation centered upon our families. We remembered, laughed, pondered, and learned.

When I met my sister, we had parked in the parking lot behind the church. Once we had returned, and said our goodbyes, a display in front of the church caught my eyes. I stopped and parked my car.

The display was six doors painted in rainbow colors with these words singularly spaced on each door: “God’s doors are open to all.” At the base of each door were religious symbols.

I took a couple of photographs, and started my drive back to Greensboro.

Over the course of the next week, I showed the photograph to family and friends. All responses were positive.

Thumbing through photographs on my phone, I see those doors, and I say to myself, “too bad that churches don’t really embrace those words.” We church people, myself included, might talk a good game, but our doors are not always open and welcoming.

On the afternoon of Friday, October 21, I was on the front grounds of our church. A second shipment of pumpkins and gourds had arrived. I looked up and saw a young man with a bicycle, a skateboard, and no helmet.

He rode the skateboard, near some steps off of a brick walkway. I always worry when I don’t see a helmet. So, I said to the young man: “how’s your head?” He looked perplexed. I repeated my question with some elaboration related to him not having a helmet.

This time he responded with “I lost it, and my mom has ordered a new one, but it’s not here yet.”

Then, I gave him some gentle grief about protecting his head, with a reminder about all that could go wrong if he were to fall.

I asked him where he went to school, and he stated, “Quioccasin Middle School.” Then, I asked if he lived in the neighborhood around the church and he said, “no.”

With that exchange, we both parted.

The old educator in my brain started to wonder if he was suspended, or maybe skipping school, or maybe he had a legitimate early dismissal for the afternoon.

Maybe because I fussed at him about not having a helmet, or I asked too many questions, he grabbed his bike and skateboard, and started walking toward Forest Avenue.

I called out to him again. Even though, I never told him he couldn’t ride his skateboard on our front grounds, I let him know if he wanted to skateboard some more, he could on the backside of our building.

He had no response to the offer. He returned to his walk heading to Forest Avenue. Forest Avenue is a narrow two lane road, it always has traffic, and there are no sidewalks. I hoped he could navigate riding his bike without a challenge from a car.

One afternoon this week, I was in the preschool wing of our building. As I glanced out a window facing Forest Avenue, I saw a young lady walking on our grounds heading toward Rock Creek Road. She caught my attention because her hair color was purple.

I wondered what her story was with the hair. Internally, I pushed that question a bit further. I wondered how I and other members of our congregation would respond to this young lady if she showed up in our Sanctuary on a Sunday morning.

Also, I’d like to know what the skateboarder thought about his encounter with me.

Maybe he internalized, “If church people are like that grumpy old guy, I don’t want anything to do with churches in my future.”

Matthew 7:7 states: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”

Even before the pandemic, churches didn’t exactly have people knocking down their doors.

Those six doors on the lawn of the Elon Community Church should serve as a gentle reminder for churches.

Coming out of the pandemic, it is quiet possible that churches might experience more knocks on their doors.

If this happens, then churches must be ready to respond to those knocks in the same manner as the words on the doors state: “God’s doors are open to all.”

But, it is also possible that churches should consider being the door knockers.

How might churches, without being evangelical or overbearing, communicate to their communities?

In my old mind, churches need to keep it simple.

It is a two way street of stories—telling the story of the church—the past, the present, and the future.

But perhaps more importantly for a community, it is the capacity for the church to listen and learn the stories of the community where the church is located.

For the church, that two way story telling needs to be grounded in— we’re here.

If you need an ear—we’re here.
If you have a question, we’re here.
If you are curious about our work in the community, we’re here.
If you want to meet for coffee or a beer, we’ll be there.
If you have an idea, we want to hear it.
If you’re struggling, we struggle too, how can we help?

Clearly, the focus of the dual storytelling and learning can be more or less.

However, for the church, it is absolutely essential that either side of the knock needs to be grounded in the words on the display at Elon Community Church: God’s doors are open to all!

Elon Community Church door display on their front grounds. Photo by Bill Pike

Day One Richmond to West Hartford: irresponsibly reckless

For the first time in sixty-nine years of living, I have a passport. And, for the first time in my life, the Commander Supreme and I are going to Europe.

This trip was hatched by my sister-in-law, Abby. The goal is to honor my mother-in-law’s upcoming birthday. Good Lord willing, in February 2023, she’ll turn 95.

It is a good trip—a cruise up the Danube River from Budapest, Hungary ending in Passau, Germany.

The planning started in June, and all of a sudden the trip is here.

Leg one for us started on October 10, 2022 with a drive from Richmond to West Hartford, Connecticut where my mother-in-law resides.

Since 1975, we have driven many times to West Hartford. Monday was the absolute worst drive we’ve ever had.

After stopping for gas on the way out of Richmond, we were on the road heading north after 8:30 a.m.

Just before Ashland, Virginia my brain started playing with me.

When I rearranged the luggage in the back of the car at the service station, my brain kept asking—“did I put all of the luggage back in the car?”

That question prompted me to take the Ashland exit. Being former educators, the Commander Supreme and I jumped out of the car and completed a quick luggage count. Luckily for me, all luggage was present.

If I had left a suitcase on the cold concrete pad at the service station, divorce filing #772 would have started.

Road trips, airplane flights, and all of the logistics creates a tension, a strain that pushes an organizer and its travel companions into an impatient orbit. There is a pursuit of perfection that every detail of the trip will go well. That’s impossible when dealing with interstates, airlines, and human beings.

It is clear to me that people who create the flight paths for airlines have no concept of geography.

For example, my wife, her mother, and I fly south from Hartford to Dulles. My wife’s brother and his spouse fly north from Richmond to Detroit. Our daughter flies north too— Raleigh to Toronto. Surprisingly, Abby and her husband, fly east toward Europe from Los Angeles without a stop. I think on that long nonstop flight, I would need to be sedated.

Airlines don’t think about geography. They think about pennies, and how many people they can uncomfortably cram into seats that are perfectly designed to hold children, but not adults.

Airlines make these ridiculous geographical connections so that no seats are empty. A packed airplane fuselage reminds me of tractor trailers barreling down the interstate with their crammed crated passengers of turkeys, hogs, and cows.

And speaking of interstates, our drive on Monday was constantly delayed by accidents and seemingly small construction projects. Those slow downs revealed how stubborn we are as Americans to try to get ahead by a car length when interstate lanes scrunch down from three to one.

This is even more infuriating because all drivers were warned several miles earlier that the lane scrunch was coming.


In this pause of traffic, I want to jump out of my car, climb on the hood, and in my best outside voice scream, “Hey, can’t you knuckleheads read?”

But in today’s America, if I did this, I’d be cursed, the insolent middle finger would be directed toward me, or quite sadly, I might be shot.

The inability to comply continues.

In the Baltimore tunnel that we took, the signage clearly reminds drivers not to change lanes inside the tunnel. As we worked our way through the tunnel, up ahead of us, we witnessed the same driver at a high rate of speed, dangerously switch lanes twice.

The good news is despite being about two hours late, we made it to West Hartford in one piece.

But that lane changing driver in the tunnel stayed with me.

I want to know why we have become so irresponsibly reckless in our walk through life?

What pushes us to totally disregard simple rules of the road that are designed in the name of safety not only for ourselves, but the people who surround us too.

Our failure to comply with reasonable requests is troubling.

If our response to reasonable requests continues to be grounded in irresponsible recklessness, what kind of future does America have?

Not even a scoop of ginger ice cream from A. C. Petersen Farms on Park Road in West Hartford can sooth the burn of that question.

Author’s note: Graphic design for the highway sign created by Elizabeth Pike.

LETTERS TO THE EDITOR

        

Finger-pointing over test scores is a waste of energy

When test score results from public school students are disappointing, politicians get riled up.

They point accusatory fingers.

Their “hot aired” finger pointing is a wasteful burn of energy.

That energy needs to be channeled to do the hard work to solve the problems our communities face in our public schools.

Clearly, the pandemic disrupted the instructional delivery for students in Virginia.

But the truth of the matter is our public schools, have been quietly eroding for a long, long time.

That erosion is grounded in our inability to solve malignant challenges related to our human infrastructure.

We can no longer ignore the instability of families.

Vicious generational cycles connected to poverty, employment, housing, safety, mental health, and equity need to be disrupted.
How do we disrupt these cycles?

Perhaps, a starting point would be for our politicians to spend a week shadowing a teacher in a challenging school. I wonder what an elected official might learn from being in the trenches with an actual teacher?

Additionally, in Virginia, we have nearly twenty five years of SOL data.

Does that data tell us anything about how to work more effectively with students who come to school everyday from unstable families?

We need political cooperation, not political finger pointing to solve the challenges found in our public schools.

Maybe this quote from “Hidden Figures” author, Margot Lee Shetterly, says it best: “You don’t get the good without the bad, but you really do have to see it all in order to make progress.”

If we want to improve our public schools in Virginia, we must be able to see it all for our families, our students, and our teachers.

Bill Pike
Henrico

Author’s note: I am honored anytime a newspaper accepts one of my submissions. This letter appeared in the OPINIONS section of the Richmond Times-Dispatch on Friday, October 28, 2022. As a retired public schools educator, I worry about the morale of our teachers. If you know a teacher in your community, please take the time to thank them for their work.

Back To School

Photo by Bill Pike

When I was a kid, summer seemed endless. In August 1975, I entered the teaching profession. For the next thirty one years, I learned that summer doesn’t last forever.

In Virginia, it is good that school systems are starting classes before Labor Day. Who knows maybe our push away from an agrarian calendar will nudge school system leaders to develop year round schools.

One of the best things about schools opening before Labor Day is back to school sale ads end. Those ads can be annoying like political ads.

On Thursday, August 18, the Virginia Department of Education released the annual results from the Standards of Learning tests that students take each year. Release of the scores always generates media headlines and comments from appointed and elected officials.

It should be no surprise that for the second consecutive year, student performance was down when compared to results before school systems were slammed by COVID-19. This was despite efforts from school systems to maintain learning by switching from in person instruction to virtual instruction.

I believe it will take students, their families, and teachers years to recover from this significant disruption. Unfortunately, the family and technology infrastructure needed to make virtual instruction successful was not always in place.

Virginia’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, Jillian Balow, stated on Thursday: “We were addressing an achievement gap before the pandemic and now we have even more ground [to make up] today.”

Why are we always trying to recover ground related to achievement gaps in Virginia?

In 1998, Virginia’s students started taking SOL tests. What have we learned from twenty four years of testing data? Are we better equipped to understand students, their families, our communities, schools, and teachers?


For example, during the pandemic in single parent homes does the data capture the impact of older siblings missing multiple middle and high school classes to assist younger siblings?

Does the data uncover the effect disruptive students have on their learning, and the learning of classmates?

Does the data reveal the consequences of prolonged achievement gaps?

Are these gaps grounded in our inability to solve malignant challenges related to family, poverty, mental health, housing, safety, and equity?

Does the data capture the morale of teachers who everyday attempt to deliver quality instruction in challenging environments?

If we hope to recover instructional ground and close achievement gaps, we must commit to the hard work of answering those questions and more.

Continuing to place blame for unsatisfactory SOL test results on the shoulders of teachers and school system leaders by appointed and elected officials is misguided. Maybe a week shadowing a teacher in a challenging school could change some minds.

Since we are quick to blame disappointing SOL scores on teachers, I wonder if Governor Youngkin’s “tip line” saw an uptick in calls when the results were released. Additionally, I wonder if the “tip line” contributed to the current teacher shortage school systems face?

Truthfully, school systems always scramble to fill teaching positions before school opens. In 1975, I was a last minute hire.

We have witnessed many changes since 1975. Sometimes in immeasurable ways, students are affected by disruptive changes in their families and communities. Despite these changes, teachers are continually asked to handle our societal challenges while still delivering instruction.

Politicians babble about improving pay and benefits for teachers.


Yet, teachers consider respect and support just as critical as the pay and benefits. Interestingly, respect and support are essential for struggling students and their families too.

If we truly want to improve SOL test scores and close achievement gaps, we need to move beyond predictable political finger pointing.

With urgency, we must commit to a deeper dive into the troublesome data. In troubling data is a struggling student. We can no longer ignore the multiple needs of these students.

Understanding how the academic potential for these students is impacted by family, poverty, mental health, housing, safety, and equity is pivotal. If we fail to make this discovery for every struggling student, then we will see no improvement in SOL scores, nor will we close gaps in achievement.

Maybe this quote from Hidden Figures author, Margot Lee Shetterly, says it best: “You don’t get the good without the bad, but you really do have to see it all in order to make progress.”

In Virginia, if we are going to make progress with SOL scores and achievement gaps, we must work together “to see it all” for every student.

Author’s note: If you know a school teacher or someone connected to public education no matter the location, please consider sharing this piece with them.