Footwork To Spring


As I’m writing this morning (2/20/19), it is lightly snowing outside. The ground is covered. But, so far the snow is not falling hard enough to blanket the road in front of our house. Maybe the two hour delay in opening our schools was the right decision. Give those weather angels up in the wild gray yonder a shot at figuring out.

Perhaps you are like me— I’m tired of winter. I suspect winter makes us more weary than the other seasons.

Winter is cold. At times, it is dreary, painted in battleship gray. Often winter is wet for what seems like endless days. Winter can also be a tease. 

For example, sixteen days ago I went for an afternoon run on February 4. The temperature was 66 degrees. We all know it’s not supposed to be 66 degrees in February in Richmond. A few days prior to the 66, we were in the grips of the polar vortex. Come on winter don’t tease like that!

On the afternoon of the 66 some people were taking advantage of the tease.

 I saw a lady relaxed in a chair in her front yard, shades on, with her chair angled perfectly toward the sun. A few turtle steps later, a car came by me with its convertible top down, and kids riding bikes or shooting hoops were in shorts and t-shirts. Even I was running in shorts.

I guess teases like this are good. They give us hope. Hope that spring is out there somewhere.

Spring is about footwork. As we all know to get to spring, our footwork has to walk us through winter.

Recently, at the Tuckahoe YMCA, I was riding an upright stationary bike in a connecting foyer between the gym and a huge workout room packed with fitness equipment and people. Little did I know that I was about to see a lesson in footwork unfold in front of me.

The bike I ride is equipped with a viewing monitor, and the computer brains of this bike allow me to choose a location where I want to ride. I’ve ridden in Ireland, Paris, the Swiss Alps, and Sequoia. It is a cheap way to travel.

 This morning, I went back to Sequoia. At one point, I glanced away from the screen and just a few feet in front of me a young man with a trainer showed up. The young man was dancing on his feet while shadow boxing. He was moving through this space like he was in a boxing ring, working every inch of the corridor bobbing and weaving with his nimble feet propelling him.

The trainer was coaching. He quietly directed commands toward his pupil. With his seasoned words, he offered corrections in his student’s upper body movements. And, the trainer carefully watched the young man’s footwork.

 This was a brief, but enlightening distraction from the bike ride. The young man in a short span of time really worked hard.

 Who knows, perhaps we need the unexpected intrusion of a spring like day in winter to distract us. 

Maybe those intrusions lighten our footwork. Maybe our lighter footwork gives  a bit of confidence. Maybe, we start to think, ok, I can count this down one day at a time. I can hang on— keep my footwork moving forward, and spring will arrive.

But those unexpected, warm intrusions in winter always give me pause. Silently, I wonder what lies ahead, winter isn’t over. I don’t trust it. Winter can still sting with a stiff north wind, that can rapidly drop temperatures, and rain in a blink can change to snow. 

The same can be said for life. It too can change in a blink.

Recently, two friends have experienced a blink—the return of an unexpected, unwanted intruder—cancer. 

Talk about a downer, I can’t imagine anything worse. If a human being survives one unbearable skirmish with cancer, he or she should be given immunity from any future encounters—period.

But, clearly, life does not work that way.

Makes me wonder, where is God’s footwork in this? I thought God should be able to out maneuver the devil’s footwork, especially when it comes to the repeat performance of cancer.

Well, there you go again Bill blaming God. I’m surprised God has kept you around for 65 years. Talk about footwork, you better keep an eye on yours. 

You know you are right about my God blaming. I’m sure He is tired of me. 

But, let’s be honest, I think we all have our God blaming moments.

 And you know what God blaming really comes down to? It is trying to understand Him. 

God what are you thinking? Where are you? How are you working on this?

Now, if I’m starting my second battle with cancer, I might really have a difficult time buying into Jeremiah 29:11:  “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”

How can a second battle with cancer be a future with hope?

The only hope there is in cancer is if your footwork allows you to find the strength to punch it out of your body for a second time.

American writer, Dashiell Hammett once stated:  “You got to look on the bright side, even if there ain’t one.”

I can find some bright sides to winter. 

I love the unobstructed view of bare trees framed against thickened gray clouds. On a crisp, cold, clear day the rich blue sky is an endless daydream. After a cold night of rain, the breaking dawn air feels like it has been scrubbed and cleansed. And, the fading light of an almost full moon peek a booing through a cloud bank makes me stop and stare.

And I’m sorry, but I can’t find any bright side in the meanness of cancer, especially when it shows up for round two in my friends.

But, just as that trainer kept a helpful eye on the footwork of his boxing student, I must do the same for my two friends. My  footwork needs to be a bright side for them.

And even though I don’t always understand God, and I’m sure he doesn’t understand me, I must trust his footwork. I need him to coach my footwork to support my friends.

My blaming Him will not help the footwork of my friends in their cancer battles.

They need me, they need you, and they need God.

Our footwork in life will face many challenges. 

But, it seems in those difficult life moments, my footwork will have a better chance if I’m grounded to these words from Psalm 94:18:

When I thought, “My foot is slipping,” your steadfast love, Oh Lord, held me up. 

Words of Comfort: Your Breathing Might Stop

IMG_0508On the morning of Sunday, February 10, I was a tad late arriving at our church to open it up. Instead of 5:30, it was closer to 6 by the time I pulled into the parking lot.

This was commitment Sunday, the first step for our congregation pledging their financial support for another year. Perhaps, the unwritten name for this Sunday should be Tension Sunday or Anxiety Sunday, but that’s another story.

I entered the building at a quicker pace. Shutdown the alarm, and started my routine—unlocking doors, turning on lights, checking PA systems, and gauging the temperaments of our three boilers. It was 19 degrees this morning. 

As soon as I walked in the Sanctuary, I knew the steam boiler was being cantankerous. I double checked the thermostat. The setting had not been changed. So, I walked down into Eaton Hall where this boiler lives.

In the mechanical room, my relatively young friend sat idle, cold, and with its red alarm light on. My internal muttering started—you blankety, blankety, blankety, blank. Yes, in God’s house on a Sunday morning, but I was muttering internally, so maybe He couldn’t hear me.

I hit the reset button. The red light went away. The boiler fired. My heart had hope. The boiler sounded like it wanted to work. I heard the cadence of its normal clicks, the water level was good, and then silence. In a blink, the boiler shutdown, the red alarm light beamed back to life. The only sound was the return of my blankety blanking now a whisper of exasperation.

I walked back in the Sanctuary and placed an SOS call for service to our HVAC company. Then, I continued my opening up routine.

The routine was predictably normal until I came into the foyer where the women’s restroom for the Welcome Center is located. My nose picked up an odor, a stench. I knew the culprit, a small floor drain in the closet for the hot water heater. 

This is an under used drain, and when the water in the trap dries out the wonderful aromas of the connecting sewer line seep into the air. More blankety blanking, except now I’m sure the big guy upstairs can hear my whining. 

I remove the drain covering, start a flow of hot water from the large custodial sink down the hall, pour some Lysol down the stinky drain, and then pour more hot water down the drain. The odor dissipates, and I continue the building opening.

A phone call comes alerting me that the HVAC technician is in route. By that time, our altar guild leader, Mrs. Berry, and senior pastor, Larry Lenow, had arrived. I let them know about the blankety blank boiler, and I walk down to my office.

At 7:25, my phone rings. I expect it is the HVAC technician, but it is my wife, the Commander Supreme. As soon as she starts to talk, I know something is wrong. She isn’t in tears, she is in pain. While reaching to shutdown the alarm clock with her left arm, something went wrong. My wife, the Commander Supreme isn’t a whiner like me. She needs me at home immediately.

No sooner than I hang up with the Commander, my phone rings again. It is the HVAC technician. 

He has never been to Trinity before. I figure out where he is on our grounds. I find him, and direct him to the closest entrance to the mechanical room. 

On the way, to the mechanical room, I let Mrs. Berry know about the challenge awaiting me at home. 

I get the technician into the mechanical room, explain what has transpired, apologize for leaving,  and head home.

At the house, upstairs, I find the Commander in pain, but trying to ready herself for the ride to the emergency room. Somehow, we complete those now cumbersome tasks without too much blankety blanking.

Gingerly, we make it down the stairs. I grab her coat and purse. I get her in the car and buckled in. Then I realize my wallet is in the house. Another unwanted pause, I hustle back in and out.

The drive to Henrico Doctors is short, but not without pain. Some bumps in the road and quick turns jar the left shoulder.

We park into front of the emergency room entrance. Slowly, we walk in, give the attendant a brief explanation, he quickly takes basic check-in info, the computer reacts positively, a young nurse walks us back into a singular room, an explanation for the visit is given, and then I go move our car.

Things move pretty quick. A doctor appears, more questions, then a plan is hatched—IV for pain and X-rays are ordered. 

A nurse arrives. The commander is hooked up to a vital signs monitor. The nurse bravely searches my wife’s overly soft veins for an entry point. Even though I’m not looking at this expedition, I announce that I am bailing out. Poking needles and blood work are not one of my passions. 

The x-ray tech arrives, and the Commander is briskly whisked away.

She returns from the x-ray work, she is reconnected to the monitor and the IV, and we wait for the doctor.

It isn’t too long, and he comes back. He confirms the shoulder has popped out of joint, no tears or chips can be seen.

The doctor explains a mild, short lasting sedative will be used, so that he can properly manipulate the shoulder and pop it back in place.

But, he did offer some comforting words about the sedative and how a patient might react to it. With this sedative, he states:  “Your breathing might stop, but don’t worry, we are well equipped to handle such an occurrence if your body reacts in that way to the sedative.” 

I’m thinking to myself, I’ve been stepping in cow pies all morning, and now you just tossed out the ultimate one.

Even though the risk is slight, the doctor is required to bring us those words of comfort.

At that point, I leave the room, and wait in a small room reserved for parents who have a child in the pediatric emergency room. 

Silently, I pray to my blankety blank Pal. I am still trying to figure out why He continues to tolerate me.

Within a short period of time, the doctor comes out. He confirms to me that the procedure went well. But, to be sure, he has ordered another set of x-rays.

I re-enter the Commander’s room. She is sleeping. She looks content. Gradually, she stirs. Then sleep returns. The nurse checks in, more time is needed before we depart to allow the sleepy drug to wear off. 

There is one more follow-up from the Doctor the x-rays confirm the shoulder is back in place.

I sit and listen. 

I hear the cries of a child. The pediatric ER is just a few steps from us. Next door, ER staff and ambulance personnel are prepping an elderly patient to return to a retirement facility. I can hear the care in their voices as they transition the patient from one gurney to the other.

The extremes of the human condition are present everyday of the year in this hospital.

And of course, before we leave, the grim bandit of finance appears. 

Armed with a computer on a cart, I joke with the finance person—I was hoping we could escape before your arrival. She laughs.

We pay what the hospital requires for this visit, and since we paid on the spot, there was a slight discount. Even though our health care system is out of whack, I am thankful that we have health insurance.

The grogginess has dissipated. Arm in a sling, loaded with paperwork, we walk out.

It has been an interesting story morning— a stubborn boiler, a stinky floor drain, and a pesky shoulder. What more could a director of operations want?

 Well, how about wedding vows?

Maybe you remember some of those words especially—“in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish,”

Come on Bill, are you going to tell me after all of that blankety blanking you did about the boiler and the floor drain that you now “love and cherish them in their sickness and health”?

Well, I might. Think about it.

 It is tough being a boiler. Imagine generating all of that heat. That’s a lot of stress, parts are going to wear out.

And for the floor drain, just consider being connected to the flushing of all that human body waste. We’re not talking about pleasant fragrances lilting through the air like a French perfume on a perfect spring morning.

So maybe, I do have a different perspective for the boiler and the floor drain.

But, I do think about those wedding vows and that young ER doctor and those troublesome words he used —“ your breathing might stop.”

If I lost my Commander Supreme, my breathing might as well stop too.

Life is unpredictable. 

Doesn’t matter who we are.

If I expect to have a chance at surviving boilers, floor drains, and the Commander Supreme’s wacky shoulder, I need to improve my connection to 1 Corinthians 13:

 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.

At home, I have a t-shirt from the Wesley Foundation at Virginia Tech. The director of this campus ministry, Bret Gresham, gave me the t-shirt a few years ago. 

Printed on the back of the t-shirt are the following words:

“Love out loud”

Remember life is unpredictable.

Loving out loud is acceptable.

If I can blankety blank out loud, I can love out loud too.

When The Pound Cake Is Gone


I suspect every church has one, or maybe had one—a pound cake maker.

Growing up at Davis Street United Methodist Church in Burlington, North Carolina, I remember Ethel Foster’s pound cake.  She had the touch. There was nothing like Mrs. Foster’s pound cake, and the congregation knew it.

 At any covered dish dinner, Ethel Foster had a pound cake on the table of desserts. I suspect her cigar smoking husband, Clifford, was probably sad at the end of those events. I’m guessing the cake platter that was taken home only held pound cake crumbs.

Perhaps, you are thinking, but Bill how about your own mother’s pound cake? Well, Louise’s cake baking skills fell into two distinct styles—angel food and German chocolate. Each were winners in their own right.

My brother-in-law’s mother, Jan, is quite the pound cake maker. Word on the street is that Jan at one time had a special source for her vanilla—the local pharmacy.

Depending upon your research source, the origin of pound cake can be traced back to northern Europe. Everyone agrees that the name pound cake comes from the four key ingredients: flour, butter, eggs, and sugar. A pound of each of those ingredients was used to make the cake, thus the name pound cake. (Wiki)

Even though I failed in my confirmation attempts, somewhere in my memory is an interview I heard with journalist, Cokie Roberts. Early in her career a boss told her to eat pound cake to sustain her through the long hours of developing a story on the run. The point was all of the eggs in pound cake offered protein. I’m sure a skilled dietician might counter that opinion with—yes those eggs offer protein, but what about all that butter and sugar?

Regardless, pound cake is a Southern staple, and there is nothing like a homemade pound cake. It is a soothing comfort, grounded in hospitality, and a welcome guest for any occasion.

But, I also have a worry, a concern, and I’ll go ahead and state it— a fear.  I sense we are losing our pound cake makers, particularly at churches.

On January 15, 2018, members of Trinity United Methodist Church said goodbye to Lane Dickinson. A celebration of Lane’s life was held that day. Lane was quite a lady. She had many admirable traits. I loved her honesty. Lane never beat around the bush with her opinion. She had a servant’s heart. And, I’m sorry, but I loved Lane for her pound cake. There was nothing like it.

Her family knew Lane’s pound cake reputation, so they included her recipe on the back of the funeral bulletin. 

For years, the congregation at our church longed for a gathering place after each worship service. We had no space large enough for people to chat and interact with each other. Where people gathered in lobbies and hallways created bottlenecks, human traffic jams.

In February 2010, our new Welcome Center was dedicated. An unused exterior garth that sat between the Sanctuary and the Children’s Wing was transformed into a magnificent gathering space. In this case, the garth had been a rarely used garden plot, with a brick floor, surrounded on three sides by brick walls and facing a connecting brick walkway.

The Welcome Center allows us to gather after worship services, but it has become much more too. At weddings, it is the staging area for bridesmaids and the bride to enter the Sanctuary. We have hosted meetings, dinners, and the space allows us to stage chairs for extra seating at Christmas and Easter.

But, I think the most important work the Welcome Center does is it provides comfort to families at a time of loss. How can a room do this? Well, if a family makes the request, our bereavement team will stage a reception for the family and their guests immediately following the funeral service.

This reception is simply heartfelt hospitality. 

Families are sustained by fellowship with their friends and with the food provided. These receptions take an ounce of pressure off the grieving family. Their sadness is temporarily distracted, and I think that is good for them.

But since, January 15, 2018, I’ll selfishly admit these receptions have been bittersweet for me—no more pound cakes from Lane Dickinson have graced those tables.

And, I’ll add another concern to the absence of a pound cake. When I look at the age of our bereavement teams, I wonder how we will replace them? At some point, these women as strong as they are will wear out. They will hang up their aprons.

Churches today are faced with lots of challenging questions. 

I never suspected that one of those questions might be what will churches do when the pound cake makers are gone?

What will churches do when bereavement teams age out and hang up their aprons?

No matter how we frame our lives, our lives evolve around our connection to people. 

As I reflect back upon every job I’ve had, any success I found was anchored in people. The same can be said for my church experiences—people. My early molding and shaping came from my family, and the people who surrounded them. 

Pound cake makers and bereavement teams are people, people with giving hearts. Their hearts sustain people in need.

As churches look to figure out their futures, it is all about people. Understanding the needs of people will be one of the keys. Meeting those needs will always be tied to having a congregation with compassionate hearts.

Maybe, you are thinking, Bill you are too grounded in the past. Pound cakes and receptions for grieving families are old school.

You know, you might be right.

But there is going to be a point in your life and my life when I’m going to need a piece of homemade pound cake and the love of giving hearts. 

For a long, long, long, long time churches have been the place where people can find that sustenance in times of need.

Churches can’t forget this.

 As churches peer into their futures, searching for a path to sustain them, I hope homemade pound cake and giving hearts are not overlooked.