Practicing Steps

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

Let me explain my confession.

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

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

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

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

So then, something dangerous happened—I started thinking.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So much of life is simply about practicing steps. 

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

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

This quote from Katharine Hepburn sums me up pretty well:

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

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

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

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

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

I need to rethink my steps in life.

I wonder if I can change?

My steps need some practicing.

Left On Belmont Avenue

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

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

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

Clearly, I have lost my mind.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But the real stories evolve around students.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

245 Square Miles of Needs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trust is a two-way street. 

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

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

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


Words of Encouragement: “It’s gonna hurt!”

I have never forgotten the words from the nurse who worked with my eye doctor. She had completed an assessment of my eyes. She quickly surmised that the chalazion on one of my eyelids would need to be surgically excised. The nurse did not hold back, she bluntly told me—“It’s going to hurt!”

That was 16 years ago. The nurse was correct. It did hurt.

Today, Monday, August 19, I have been dreading. 

The Commander Supreme has driven me to the eye clinic. I have a chalazion on my upper left eyelid. Despite my recommended medically approved tactics on the chalazion, it has not gone away. It never showed any signs of wanting to retreat. Stubbornly red and angrily inflamed, the chalazion would not withdraw.

For 16 years, I have battled an annoying eye lid condition called blepharitis. Blepharitis is a fairly common inflammation of the eyelids. Symptoms vary, but for me one of my challenges is the tiny oil glands at the foundation of each eyelash. If one oil gland gets clogged, that can lead to the formation of a chalazion, which is a fancy word for a stye or cyst.

My original eye doctor put me on a regimen for preventing the development of a chalazion. This includes daily eyelid scrubs using warm water and q tips, warm water compresses with a bath cloth, gentle washing of the eyelids with soap and water, and adding ground flax seed to my diet.

Now, I have had the sporadic chalazion pop up, and I’m usually able to make them go away. But, this one would not cooperate.

To add to my anxiety on this hot and humid August morning, my reliable, trusted eye doctor has retired. While I’m happy for her, internally I’m crushed. But, I guess there is only so much chalazion excising that a doctor is able to handle during a career—especially with a wimpy patient like me.

With a bit of uneasiness, I check in with the receptionist. Even though I had completed all of the registration paperwork on line, I’m still required to sign my life away. Plus, I make a bandit driven insurance co-pay. Grumps like me must make the receptionist rethink why she chose this line of work.

Soon, I’m called back. The Commander Supreme offers me a hopeful good luck. This nurse confirms my information related to my overall health and my eye health. I often wonder why they go through this routine. All of that information is already out there, stored in a computer cloud somewhere. She checks my vision, and for my left eye, I am certain she is stunned. My guess is she wonders how this old guy walked into the examining room without crashing into a door frame.

Satisfied with the information I provided, she tells me the doctor will be in soon. Soon is tough to define in a doctor’s office. Soon could mean 30 seconds, 30 minutes, 30 days, 30 weeks, or 30 months. In this case, soon was somewhere between 30 seconds and 30 minutes.

When the doctor came in he was accompanied by another nurse. The doctor greeted me. A rapid round of questions were directed toward me. Then, the doctor grabbed a hold of that chalazion with his fingers. Quickly, he assessed that there was about a 20% chance with some different techniques that I might be able to get the chalazion to go away.

I thought to myself—I’ve been trying to get this booger to go away for two months. I have failed, and that’s when “It’s gonna hurt” starting screaming through my memory banks. 

I received permission to walk out into the waiting area to tell the Commander Supreme what was transpiring. I had on my running shoes, if I had really been thinking I should have sprinted out of the building. But, I was a good boy, and returned to the nurse who walked me into the room where the excising would be performed.

The only good thing about the next few minutes was the chair. Thickly padded, it could be manipulated to fit the contours of my old sack of bones including my neck. I’m sure when I receive the itemized bill for this procedure there will be a chair cost, and it will probably be $10,000.

The nurse prepped me and the room. I had to sign some more giving my life away forms. I think the fine print on this one required me to forfeit my shoebox full of craft beer bottle caps.

The doctor entered. He tweaked the chair, more dollar signs. Numbing drops plopped into both eyes. To my left I saw a palm sized blue ball. The nurse put it in my  right hand. 

I could see the syringe full of a numbing agent heading toward my left upper eyelid. The fine tip of the needle was poised to intrude and inflict pain. It was successful. In a nano second that blue ball in my right hand was flatten. I never gave it a chance to regain its breath. The ball became flatter than one of those awful communion wafers.

I winced at some tugging on my eyelid. The doctor told me he was clearing other oil ducts in the lid. Several times the doctor asked the nurse to wipe away the vile oozing from the chalazion.

Soon, he was finished. My eye was cleaned up. A swath of ointment was applied, then packed with cotton gauze. Next, the nurse taped me up with an eye patch. The tape did not want to stick to my perspiring facial skin. The nurse doubled up the tape.

Slowly, the chair was manipulated to  bring me up right. The nurse went over the post operative instructions. She gave me the instructions sheet, and she sought my assurance that I was not going to topple over. 

I walked out into the waiting room.

Through me right eye, I could see the people in the waiting room look away or down when they saw the eye patching.

A calm Commander Supreme walked me out to the car. 

I could not take off the eye patch until Tuesday morning. So for much of Monday afternoon, I stared into darkness. I did not want to strain my right eye.

It wasn’t long before the numbing agent wore off. I had permission to take an over the counter pain killer. Every four hours I took ibuprofen, and by bedtime the pain was gone.

The Commander Supreme had picked up the prescription— an antibacterial ointment for me to apply to the eye for the next two weeks. A regimen of cold and warm compresses would be required too.

On Tuesday morning when I removed the patch my left eye looked gnarly. I had a busy day ahead of me between Trinity and school board assignments.

I had my words rehearsed for explaining my appearance. Contrary to what you are thinking after almost 44 years of marriage, my wife did not finally lose patience and slug me. 

One thing I did note on Tuesday was even after taking a shower, some of the stickiness from the double taping of the eye patch remained on my skin. I worried that flying insects might land on me and not be able to escape. That would have only added to the comedy of my appearance—human fly paper.

Per our wedding vows, the Commander Supreme rendered good care to me. I am grateful that somehow she still tolerates me and all my faults.

Each day the eye looked a bit better. 

Compared to what some people endure with health conditions, a chalazion on an eye lid is nothing.

There is no comfort or encouragement in the words—“It’s going to hurt!”

And while I am far from perfect in loving the Lord and the people he surrounds me with each day, I was drawn to these words from Psalm 116 verses 1-2:  “I love the Lord, for he heard my voice; he heard my cry for mercy. Because he turned his ear to me, I will call on him as long as I live.”

I sensed during this little medical skirmish that the good Lord heard my calling. This included the prayers of the people around me.

As we all know, at times life does hurt. But, perhaps those hurts are soften a bit when the Lord hears our cries.


Frozen In Roanoke: Love One Another

Mark Twain once said:  “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Fransisco.”

For me, the coldest first day of summer I ever spent was at the Berglund Center in Roanoke, Virginia on Friday, June 21. I was attending the annual conference of the Virginia United Methodist Church as a Richmond district delegate for Trinity Methodist my home church in Henrico County.

A family of three sitting up behind me was wrapped in fleece throws. They might have well been sitting outdoors in a football stadium on a cold, gray, blustery December day. 

It was so cold in the Berglund Center that I’m certain I could have churned and made a quart of ice cream. 

A side of beef could have been hung from the rafters with no fear of spoiling.

 And while I didn’t witness this, I reckoned that spilled hot coffee might have turned immediately to a slippery patch of ice as soon as it hit one of the concrete steps on the aisle leading to my seat.

Kudos to the engineers who designed the system. It works. The largest rain forest in the world could have been cooled down with these chillers. 

But, I suppose from a preacher’s perspective, the frigid Siberian air kept attendants awake!

So just before 5 on Saturday morning, June 22, I awoke to ready myself for the conference sponsored 5K run. I was still chipping ice off my old frame as I found my running gear. Out of all of the races I have signed up to run, this one had the earliest start time— 6:15.

From the Hampton Inn airport location, it was a short drive over to the Best Buy parking lot. That was the gathering point for the runners, walkers, and bike riders who had signed up to participate. The group was hard to miss. Everyone, but me was wearing their bright yellow t-shirt commemorating this first annual run.

I wore a bright blue t-shirt from the Mission Footprint 5K that we organized for a few years at Trinity. Despite not wearing the new shirt, I was treated kindly.

About 300 had gathered, and shortly after the announcements, we started walking toward the Lick Run Greenway trail. We walked parallel to the interstate and then crossed over the highway via a sturdily constructed footbridge with all of the safety trimmings in place. Some truckers and motorists seeing this lemon colored mass shuffling across the bridge tooted their horns in approval.

At the end of the footbridge the path started, and slowly participants began moving out.

The first steps of a 5K are like being jostled in a bag of pinto beans. We are all looking for a bit of elbow room. It takes some maneuvering, but gradually the path opens up.

I overheard an early comment about the terrain. We started off going down hill. The course is a loop. So that means getting back to the finish line will require recovering this ground, but going uphill at that time.

The course is nice. A wide path of asphalt, lots of green vegetation on both sides. There is even a quietly chatting creek running with us for a while. Birds are chirping a greeting  as I slog into their domain.

Must have run under a walnut tree as I see a good sized green walnut laying on the path. I recall an early childhood lesson about how the oil from a walnut hull can stain clothing.

I admire the vision of the planners who carved out this trail. I wish I had that kind of foresight. Saving green space like this is good for all Roanokers.

There is a short trek on a quiet neighborhood street, and then we reconnect to the trail. Further along we loop into the Brown/Robertson Park. Briefly, we leave the smooth asphalt for a terrain of worn turf and dried mud.  I grabbed a cup of water at the water table.

Course marshals keep us properly directed, and out of the park we return to the trail. We have already encountered the really fast runners who will finish this 5K in a blink. On the way back, we encounter walkers and runners plodding along. All appear to be content.

Slowly, I work my way back over the course. Finally, I’m at that downhill section where we started. My old body can feel the pull of going up hill. But somehow, I keep lifting my legs. I cross the bridge, and push toward the next incline.

A good crowd lines the path on both sides as I approach the finish line. Gentle applause and words of congratulations greet the participants. My goal for any race is to cross the finish line.

That too is the goal for everyone who works behind the scenes for the annual conference, get to the finish line.

But, just because annual conference has a natural ending, that doesn’t mean our work as Methodists comes to a stop.

Out on that 5K course, I remember a section of posted signs about Kids Soar, but also some significant scripture on a sign: “love one another.”

Just like that singular walnut out on the trail had the capacity to stain my clothing, I hope my take away from annual conference is that I need to be stained by those words—“love one another.”

If we Methodist expect to endure the challenges we face as a church, we must embrace those three words—“love one another.”

Cheering and Clapping For #6

 

At this very moment in America, a new child is being born. Chances are the parents are cheerfully happy about this arrival. 

And in America today, a person will die from being shot by a person with a gun. Chances are the parents never expected  to lose a loved in this manner.

No matter when or where this shooting occurs, one individual cheers and claps with sincere happiness. That individual would be the devil. The devil cheers and claps because #6 has been broken.

You know #6—from the Ten Commandments—“Thou shall not kill.” 

Yes, the devil cheers and claps when #6 is broken—every time.

But, there is something worse. Too frequently, when America experiences mass shootings like El Paso and Dayton, the person responsible for breaking #6 is cheered. Cheered by people who have the same disconnected beliefs as the shooter.

Charles de Gaulle once stated, “ We may well go to the moon, but that’s not very far. The greatest distance we have to cover still lies within us.”

That distance within us and that distance between us is troublesome.

And in truth, there is a distance between me and the Ten Commandments. I rarely think about them. And I am a so called Christian, who attends church regularly, reads scripture everyday, and prays everyday.

 And I suspect, no trigger puller for any of the mass shooting we have experienced in our country thinks about #6 either.

Why is this? 

Perhaps, the answer has something to do with distance. 

That gap, that space, that span what does it create within us and between us?

On Sunday, July 28, my wife and I drove to Clarksville, Maryland to attend A Celebration of Life for the youngest son of dear college friends. Their son who would have turned 34 on August 1 was gunned down at a boat marina in Arizona on May 24. This was an unexpected, senseless tragedy, the nightmare of nightmares.

We left Richmond early to drive up I-95. Luckily, our travel time wasn’t disrupted by heavy traffic.

Off I-95, we skirted around Columbia, Maryland, headed toward our destination. A traffic exit sign caught my attention with the traditional green background and bold white letters, it read—Broken Land Parkway.

BrokenLandCropped

I thought to myself, “America—we are a broken land.”

Despite all our accomplishments and all of our good, in truth, we are a broken land. Perhaps, a prideful distance keeps us from admitting this. One thing is clear,  we have been very good for a long, long, long time at ignoring #6.

I wonder what distance within us and between us has to do with our broken land?

What is in the heart of that distance in our broken land?

Is it the crumbling of the American family,  a widening economic divide, abuse of our freedoms, lack of education, overloaded mental health systems, a need for role models, systems of support that have become ineffective, a reluctance to rethink our predictable responses to societal challenges, or the diminishing influence of churches?

Perhaps, the answer is all of the above.

For sure our country has many foes who would like to see us destroyed by their force. Yes, there is a lot to worry about from our foes. But at this stage, I think we have become very efficient at destroying ourselves.

Singer songwriter, Christopher Cross’, first hit single “Ride Like The Wind”  is a song about an outlaw making a run for the Mexico border to save his life. One line of lyric sums up his walk through life :  “Always spoke my mind with a gun in my hand.”

Sadly for some in America that is their diplomacy.

And the devil cheers.

This quote from Aldous Huxley recently caught my attention: “Most human beings have an almost infinite capacity for taking things for granted.”

I fear that I have started to take America’s ailments for granted.

I can’t do this. 

Remember, the devil cheers.

My capacity for wanting to help my country should be infinite.

If the devil is cheering over #6, then God’s heart is breaking.

The capacity to stop that cheering and the heart breaking is within me and you.

My heart must work to reduce the distance within me and between us.

 Hard work—yes.  But it beats hearing the devil cheer.

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Last Walk In Chicago

 

The predawn light creeps in early to the condo. This old air mattress has been good to me since Thursday night. I have slept, despite all of the thoughts that race through by old noggin’.

At some point on Tuesday, July 2, we’ll head back toward Richmond. Lake Shore Drive, U.S. Highway 41, and interstates 65 and 64 lie ahead.

Life is a blur.  The seconds are always ticking. They never stop.

 I remember, my wife, the Commander Supreme, and I driving our oldest daughter, Lauren, to Chicago years ago. She was starting graduate school at DePaul. Lauren says it has been fourteen years. I had lost track of counting those years. 

Remember life is a blur.

A lot has transpired in those years.

 Lauren earned her master’s degree from DePaul. Started a career that allowed her to successfully work in assorted capacities with three different non-profits. 

Made life long friends, met her husband, married, and now is the mother to Caroline also known as (momma my nose is running), and Hudson (the block tower crasher).

Now, a new chapter in the book starts. Goodbye to Chicago and your comfort zones, Raleigh here we come. 

I quietly move about the condo. Finally organized and equipped with my hand me down camera from our son-in-law, Doug, and my iPhone, I head out for a walk. 

While far from professional, I like taking pictures. Architecture in Chicago, interests me. I have no expertise, but something usually catches my eye. I point and click.

During the last few years, I’ve learned my way around this Lincoln Park neighborhood. I can still get lost, but I can find my way back to 1947 North Hudson. The River Shannon bar at the corner of Hudson and Armitage is an easy landmark.

This morning, I’m focused on doors and doorways, and how the angles of early sunlight might cast upon them.

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I’m on Lincoln Avenue near Ranalli’s a good pizza restaurant. It was near here that I encountered a wayward soul who asked for spare change. 

He was polite and seemed overly humble toward me. I was cautious, lots of questions speeding through my mind.

With some confusion, he showed me an Indiana ID. He was hungry. 

Our interaction was brief. I expressed my reluctance to help. My heart was conflicted. But, I opened my wallet, and I gave him a dollar. 

I interpreted his body language as disappointment with the dollar.

I walked off. He walked off.

Now, my conscience was all over me.

You should have done more.

You should have been more cautious. 

After all you have been blessed with, you only managed a dollar?

What kind of so called Christian are you? 

He was a big, young strong kid. You’re lucky he didn’t rip your wallet right out of your hands. What were you thinking?

I kept walking looking for photographic opportunities—better known as distractions to quiet my grumbling self-talk.

 The ground I covered failed to silence my internal voices. I worked my way back to North Hudson.

Inside the condo, chaos was about to erupt. Our son-in-law was waiting for a phone call from the moving company. That call came earlier than expected. 

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Bedlam, havoc, pandemonium prevailed.

Lauren, the two grandkids, the Commander Supreme, and I had an escape plan. We left Doug to work with the movers. 

We headed into the city for breakfast and a series of distractions while the movers worked their magic.

All I can say is that I’m thankful our daughter was driving.  If I had been driving, the ears of the grandchildren would have been scarred for life.

We found a place near the famous Water Tower for breakfast.

The amount of food we were served was sinful. I thought about my earlier encounter with the hungry young man. 

I looked into the faces of the waitstaff and table clearers. Each was so polite and courteous to us. I wondered about their lives. I wondered how they survived with their pay. I wondered how many jobs they string together to make ends meet.

After breakfast, within walking distance, we checked out a park, a farmers market, and the most dangerous retailer for grandparents, American Girl.

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From there, we loaded up again and headed to the world famous Cloud Gate, better known to visitors as the Bean. The bean shiny, bright, and reflective has become a Chicago icon, always a photo op.

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Crown Fountain is a part of this park as well. On this hot, humid sun drenched morning, this place was full of kids and adults taking advantage of the spraying water. Caroline and her Nahna took off their shoes and enjoyed the water too.

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Lauren checked back with Doug, and the movers had made lots of progress. It was safe for us to head back to Lincoln Park.

As Lauren drove back into the quiet streets near their condo, I noticed a large construction dumpster outside a home. A tired looking pickup truck was parked beside it. 

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I saw the owner of the truck scavenging through the dumpster. He was pulling out any large piece of metal he could find. His truck bed already contained some other bulky metal items. 

Once he had a full load, my guess is this man would head to the scrap yard to collect money for his finds. 

I wondered about his life— scavenging construction dumpsters for metal to convert to cash. I wondered how many days he does this? I wondered if he had other employment? I admired his determination in this cycle for survival. I wondered how many others in the ‘city of broad shoulders’ are out doing the very same thing.

My conscience started working on me again. 

What did Jesus mean when he said, “You will always have the poor with you.”

While the speed of life might be a blur for me at times, the societal challenges that surround me are not a blur.

The poor are not a blur. They are very, very real.

I don’t think Jesus had blurry vision with regard to the poor, the weary, the downtrodden, the burdened.

I’m not so sure about my vision. I can write about these societal challenges, but what am I doing to help?

In the introduction to Lynne Olson’s book Citizens of London, she quotes a 1945 speech from American Ambassador, Gil Winant. He was speaking at the dedication ceremony for a monument that honored Americans who participated in the D-Day landing in France.

Olson wrote:  “The ambassador declared that if man was to survive in the perilous new period, he “must learn to live together in friendship,” to act “as if the welfare of a neighboring nation was almost as important as the welfare of your own.” Winant acknowledged that the accomplishment of such goals would be a supremely difficult task. “But,” he added, “So was D-Day. If that could be done, anything can be done—if we really care to do it.”

Perhaps, we could solve the cycle of our societal ills in that D-Day reflection—“anything can be done—if we really care to do it.”

That’s the question for me and maybe for you to answer—do we really care to do it?

Remember, Jesus cared.

Morning Run In Chicago

 

On the morning of Saturday, June 29, I woke up early. This is normal for me. I have an internal alarm clock. 

Quietly, I moved about the condo. Last thing, a grandfather wants to do is to clunk into something that might cause a sleeping grandchild to wake up early too.

When we travel, I always try to take my running shoes with me. If time allows, going for a run is a goal. This morning, I plan to take a run over to Chicago’s Lakefront Trail.

A few years ago, I also started carrying with me on trips the Upper Room. This is a magazine that publishes a daily devotional and scripture reading. People from around the world contribute devotionals. For me, the Upper Room has become my starting line. My new day always begins with this early morning read.

Before I head out, I scribble the address of the Lincoln Park condo on a small piece of paper and tuck it inside my running shorts pocket. If I were to croak on this run, at least the Chicago police would know where to drop the body bag.IMG_2121

I find my way down the three flights of stairs to the sidewalk. An unexpected, late Friday afternoon thunderstorm had scrubbed Lincoln Park. Dampness still hung in the air, and puddles waiting to be evaporated were hanging around. 

The Commander Supreme and I experienced that pounding rain first hand. We had the responsibility of getting Caroline and Hudson back to the condo from Ranalli’s, a neighborhood pizza restaurant. Lauren and Doug had arranged to meet friends there for a farewell gathering.IMG_2092

It’s not a long walk from the restaurant back to the condo. But, in this thunderstorm there was no immunity from getting soaked. I wondered what Caroline and Hudson thought about this from their stroller seats. Perhaps they were asking themselves— What are Nahna and Papa doing dashing us home in this downpour? We know they are getting older. Have they lost their minds? For those few minutes, I think we did lose our common sense.

I turn the corner at the River Shannon and head down Armitage. My old brain knows my route from previous Chicago runs. The neighborhood is quiet. There is very little traffic, so I can plod through intersections without difficulty.IMG_2132

I pass by the Hotel Lincoln and head into the park that surrounds the Lincoln Park Zoo. Vendors have been working to set up for the Green City Market. This is a farmers market with participants from Michigan, Illinois, and Indiana. Later this morning, I know we’ll be returning to make some purchases. IMG_2108

Part of my path takes me off asphalt and concrete. There is a crushed stone service road that runs behind some athletic fields. The thunderstorm formed puddles here too, and I alter my steps to avoid a big splash.

The service road connects me to the North Avenue Beach foot bridge. A weather worn fortress that crosses me over Lakeshore Drive. Even though I am safely above the fast moving vehicles, I occasionally sense the sensation of the cars clipping me out at my feet— like a linebacker tripping the feet of a fleet running back. Clearly, I am no fleet running back.

I plod down the steps, and inch toward the Lakefront trail. I turn left, and head north.

All cities have faults, but it appears that the people of Chicago love the Lakefront Trail. And, it is apparent that Chicago attempts to take care of the trail and its adjoining green spaces. For example, the sandy beach on my right has received an early morning manicure. Clever mechanical engineers have designed a beach sweeper that can be pulled behind a tractor. The sweeper clears the beach of debris and rake the sand too.IMG_0588

Plodding along, I continue to gaze out on Lake Michigan. I know from its shoreline to its horizon the lake is full of stories. Just like the people out on the trail this morning—their lives are full of stories. Some of those stories have been told, and some will be tucked inside forever silent.

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Still pushing north, I can’t get caught up in a daydream. Runners pass me. I pass walkers. Over time, mother nature has roughed up some sections of the concrete and asphalt surfaces that my feet pound. I alternate between hard surface and a narrow shoulder of crushed stone. 

My turnaround point is Diversey Harbor, and a landmark that I always thought was a windmill. This piece of landscape art is actually a metal sculpture named Chevron by John Henry, a Chicago artist. Made of steel and painted a shade of Chicago Cub blue, its placement seems to fit well into the trail.

My brain charts out the loop for turning me around and pointing me south.

On the way back, I note several places where wet sand runoff from Friday’s thunderstorm has captured imprints of footprints from runners and walkers.   Even the pattern from my aging running shoes leave an imprint. But then I reason, my mark on the wet sand is only temporary. Soon another pair of foot prints will come along and cover me up.

A few years ago, I remember taking a morning run on the Lakefront Trail, and I caught a glimpse of a runner’s t-shirt. I have never forgotten the printed words:  “Have you exercised your faith today?”

Now that is a tough question. 

One that I have never ever considered.

I consistently attempt to exercise each week. My reason for the exercise is I don’t want my doctor fussing at me when I have my annual physical.

But, how many times during a week do I exercise my faith? What does exercising my faith look like? Is this something I do automatically without thinking, or do I need a prompt, a reason?

I know one thing for sure, at age 66 my time left on the trails of life is just as fleeting as my footprint disappearing on wet sand. I can watch those seconds tick away on any pedestrian crosswalk clock too.

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But, I think that is the point, I shouldn’t watch those seconds tick away. I need to exercise my faith, and that means movement.

James Chapter 2, verse 17 makes it clear:  In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

I wonder how many days I have lived with a dead, no action faith?

I’m pretty sure I need to make a faith course correction.

The real question is will I?

Chicago: Goodbye 1947 North Hudson

 

On the morning of Thursday, June 27, 2019 at 6:01 a.m. we departed Richmond bound for Chicago. Nice way to spend my birthday—a long 13 hour road trip. 

We had a good reason for making the trip. Our oldest daughter, Lauren, husband, Doug, and two children, Caroline and Hudson are moving to Raleigh, North Carolina. We are going to help with the final staging of the move. The moving company arrives on July 2.

It is the perfect storm. 

At the center of the storm is one of our least favorite words—change. Leaving your Chicago comfort zone is also about courage. The courage to realize that winters in Chicago punch hard and wear you out. Taxes in the windy city are blood pressure boiling high. No public elementary school is in close proximity to their current home. And last, but certainly not least—crime. As I’m writing this 21 have been shot in Chicago, two died, and the weekend isn’t over. 

No doubt change is difficult, but in this case, I think it makes sense.

And speaking of change, the start of our journey this morning also involves change—the Commander Supreme is in the driver’s seat. She takes the first leg from Richmond to the West Virginia Welcome Center.

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Day Lillies West Virginia Welcome Center

I take over there as we push through the those humbling hills and twisting turns of I-64 and the West Virginia Turnpike. North of Charleston, we pick up US 35 that will take us into Ohio. US 35 is a good distraction minus the almost 14 mile stretch where it shrinks down into two lanes.

All along the way, construction projects have slowed us down, but never put us at a standstill. Further along on US 35, an accident slowed us a bit. A flat bed loaded with construction materials slid across a wide median.

We pulled into a rest stop, and the Commander Supreme took back over.

Somewhere well before Dayton, the sky was beginning to darken in front of us.  I texted our son, Andrew, for an update. We were driving into a strong storm with flash flood potential. But, the good news was he expected the storminess to be short-lived.

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Storm in front of us on US 35.

At about the same time, our youngest daughter, Elizabeth, was attempting to land in Minneapolis for a business meeting. The weather was too stormy to land. They were diverted to Fargo, North Dakota.  

The sky darkened more, gust of wind swayed a few trees back and forth, on the horizon lightning flashed, and then we entered the fray. For several miles it was a car washer rain. Even baked on bird poop was pounded off. 

Traffic slowed, lots of drivers pulled over. We put on our emergency flashers, quickened the slapping of the windshield wipers, and crept like a turtle. Gradually, the rain let up, and in the distance the sky’s darker shades of gray begin to lighten.

Traffic was heavy as we exited US 35 and connected with our next interstate. The Commander kept driving until we were on the other side of Indianapolis. We stopped for gas, and I-65 home of 18 wheelers became my focus.

Gradually, we hooked a westward left, said goodbye to Indiana, and connected to the Chicago Skyway.

It is the Chicago Skyway Toll Bridge also known as the High Bridge that conveys poet Carl Sandburg’s words calling Chicago the “City of the broad shoulders.” Crossing this massive steel framed bridge feels like we are sitting on broad shoulders. Sandburg’s description fits.

Without too much conflict, we amble our way to Lakeshore Drive. Traffic is heavy-stop and go through lots of traffic lights. Eventually, we exit on to Lasalle and make the proper merges without a harsh beep from a local. 

But, I confess, I did break the traffic laws at one point. At a busy intersection that had no left turn traffic light, I made a left turn on red. Of course, the Commander Supreme wasn’t happy. I’m sure the traffic engineers for the city are top-notched, but they got this intersection wrong—it needs a left turn traffic light.

Over on North Hudson, our son-in-law, had us a parking space scoped out. It was the biggest parking space I have ever seen in Chicago. I didn’t need to parallel park!

With Doug’s help, we unloaded the car, pulled our road trip stiff bodies up the stairs, and were promptly greeted by Lauren, Caroline, and Hudson.

That’s Willson With Two L’s

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I have been dreading this day since the first time I met Drew Willson. I knew at some point, Drew and his wife, Shea, and their children Kyrianne and Halley would be leaving us.  Another assignment from the Virginia Conference would arrive. 

It doesn’t seem possible that he has been at Trinity for three years. This is a confirmation that time truly does fly.

When I first met Drew, I thought this guy is like Tom Hanks in the movie Big. Except Drew was Tom Hanks on steroids. Drew was always in motion. Lots of physical energy to be burned like the great comic actors Phil Silvers, Don Knotts, and Tim Conway.

He quickly gave his office—his touch, his feel. Books and musical instruments dominated.

I wrote a story about him for Westham Life magazine. A good part of the article focused on Drew’s first solo album, Inviting Storms To Town. My ears liked what I heard. To my surprise, this wasn’t some Christian folk or rock album. It was real, heartfelt music. Songs carefully crafted, instruments in the backing tracks just right, and lyrics that told stories.

Drew found his way into his work at Trinity. There was a learning curve. At times, that curve was a bit choppy, a bit testy, but I think that is part of a preacher’s life. 

Everyone has an opinion about public education, and everyone has an opinion about preachers too. One Sunday, a preacher might be three for three, and the next Sunday, the preacher strikes out.

Sometimes in the pulpit, Drew’s passion, emotions created a stir. That stir might rub us the wrong way. Perhaps, a preacher isn’t truly doing his or her job if they don’t rub us the wrong way once in a while. Maybe it is the chosen topic, maybe it hits too close to home, and it jolts us. I seem to recall that Jesus could rub people the wrong way too.

Being a preacher’s kid, I think those experiences became woven into Drew’s own fabric. I sense Drew was acutely attuned to those communities where his father served. Those experiences became stories. Maybe in those stories Drew was blueprinting his future.

While they had a few early moments of clashing, I don’t think I have ever been around two more gifted musicians than Charles Staples and Drew. When paired with a piece of music they are passionate about— look out! In an entirely different setting, their collaborative Christmas caroling showcase for Pub Theology at Ardent Craft Ales was priceless.

Unlike me, Drew has unbelievable recall from his seminary experience. About the only thing I remember from my master degree work was how painful the statistics course was. His passion for the gospel is extraordinary. He can readily cite assorted topics, insights from professors, and the technical aspects of theology.

Like all of us, Drew is vulnerable. Part of working through the Unstuck consultation hit him hard. One morning session at the Roslyn Retreat Center was really tough. After lunch break, our paths crossed as we were heading back to our meeting room. I sensed his confidence had been slammed. I stopped and told him that I loved him.

Not sure, but I think he sold out the Tin Pan where he staged a solo concert as a fundraiser. Every age demographic from Trinity was at that show. His opening song was a cover of Brian Wilson’s “Love and Mercy.” I think those two words are a big part of Drew’s daily living.

His love and mercy showed, when he rode over to Don Pierce’s hospital room with a guitar. Drew sang to Don during his last days on earth. One of the tunes he performed was“Estrellas en las Montanas”. This gentle song appears on Drew’s second album and was dedicated in memory of Don.

I have no idea what this experience at Trinity has been like for Shea, Kyrianne, and Halley. Families of preachers have a learning curve as well. My guess is that transition isn’t flawless. But, I’ve never seen two cuter children than Kyrianne and Halley. Their eyes sparkle with curiosity.

Shea has her gifts too—writing. She was instrumental in helping us with the revamping of the Trinity Advent devotional book. That first year, she pulled scripture passages together, and took on the  tough job of editing every submission.

On October 22, her book, Exactly as You Are: The Life and Faith of Mister Rogers, will be released. Amazon is already taking pre-orders.

I will always cherish the conversations I’ve had with Drew about music. I can’t sing or play any instrument, but as I rapidly age, sometimes a song will cause tears to rise up in my tired eyes. Drew’s second album Ritual Matters does that for me. I am no music critic or expert, but I don’t believe I have heard a better collection of songs. No clunkers on this recording, each song has merit.

Musicians have unique hearing. They hear in a different orbit. But, I also appreciate Drew’s listening skills.Once, he helped a family plan a large and emotionally charged funeral. Somehow, Drew helped the family accomplish a celebration of life. 

Drew brings his own personal energy to the Children’s Moment in our traditional worship services. Earlier this spring, Drew used a picnic blanket to illustrate a point related to exclusion and inclusion. In this setting, Drew appears natural, at ease, and the beauty is found in the balance to connect not only with the children, but the adults too. Often, it is humor that is the connector sparked by his interaction with the children. 

Both Larry and Drew were helpful in providing resources for me when I was given the privilege to pinch hit in the pulpit. Their expertise was always available. Each of our ministers is gifted in delivering a sermon. 

In Drew’s last sermon at Trinity this morning, my brain grabbed hold of his use of the word tension. Lots of tension in our world today. Preachers cast a wide net with their sermons. There is tension in that toss, but I sense our real opportunity to learn comes from that tension. That give and take, that push and pull, is woven with a balance in Drew’s sermons. Additionally, I think Drew has learned from that tension while serving Trinity.

As I stated earlier, I have been dreading Drew’s departure. My brain has been working overtime to find just the right words for saying goodbye. Thanks to Timothy White, I might have found them.

At the conclusion of Mr. White’s book, The Nearest Faraway Place, he shares the following prayer. Some sources cite its anonymous origin to a wall in an old inn in Lancaster, England.

Give us, Lord, a bit o’ sun

a bit o’ work and a bit o’ fun;

give us all in the struggle and sputter

our daily bread and a bit o’ butter;

give us health, our keep to make,

and a bit to spare for other’s sake;

give us sense, for we’re some of us duffers,

an’ a heart to feel for all that suffers;

give us, too, a bit of song

and a tale and a book to help us along,

an’ give us our share o’ sorrows’ lesson

that we may prove how grief’s a blessin’.

Give us, Lord, a chance to be

Our goodly best, brave, wise and free,

Our goodly best for ourself and others

Till we all learn to be sisters and brothers.

I will miss you Drew, Shea, Kyrianne, and Halley, and I will pray for you as your next chapter unfolds. 

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