That’s Willson With Two L’s

drew concert

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. 


Disrupting Mothers and Fathers: 39,773


On the morning of Friday, May 10, I drove my wife to the Amtrak station on Staples Mill Road. She was taking the train to visit her 90 year old mother in Connecticut for Mother’s Day. Since the arrival of our first child in 1983, this is probably the only time when we haven’t been together for Mother’s Day, a slight disruption.

For some reason, on Sunday, May 12, I left my school board phone at home while I went through my usual assignments at Trinity United Methodist Church. When I returned home after the last service, I checked  that phone. It was full of e-mails related to Godwin High School. Overnight, the school had been significantly vandalized with hateful and threatening graffiti.

After taking care of a few things at home, I drove over to Godwin. When I arrived, I saw crews working with power washers, steel brushes, and solvents to remove those unacceptable words and symbols.

Inside the building, I was briefed by the school’s principal and assorted school board staff about what they knew at this time. Additionally, they were working on updating the Godwin community and planning for the opening of school on Monday.

Sadly, the individuals who were responsible for this mess did not think about the disruption they had created for all of the people at Godwin on a pretty afternoon Sunday afternoon. Nor had they considered the disruptions that would take place in their own lives when Henrico police would follow the evidence and tips that would lead to arrests.

Friday, May 24, my wife and I were attending a backyard celebration at a neighbor’s home for an east coast visit of one of their sons. This young man, a Navy Seal, was here with his wife and children for a few days to reunite with family and friends.

While we were enjoying this very happy occasion, unknown to my wife and I, a tragedy was taking place at a boat marina in Saguaro Lake, Arizona. The youngest son of dear college friends was shot to death. This 33 year old motivational speaker would leave behind a wife expecting their first child—more lives disrupted.

Two days later at a park in Richmond, a 9 year old girl and an 11 year old boy were shot at a community cookout and celebration. The girl died from her wounds. The young man was in serious condition—more lives disrupted.

On the afternoon of Friday, May 31, 12 people are shot and killed at a municipal building in Virginia Beach. The assailant was killed in  a shootout with the police—more lives disrupted.

Hey America, in case you haven’t noticed we are a mess. 

These senseless acts of violence bring a very predictable post incident response—media coverage for days, politicians commenting, vigils are held, the dead are honored and buried, and the indirectly unaffected go back to our normal routines.

 Those whose lives were disrupted by these events will never meet normal again. This disruption is permanent. It hangs around like a surreal, reoccuring bad dream. There is no closure, no light at the end of the tunnel. Normal is buried along with the loved one.

In 1968, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention started recording deaths in America that were caused by people using  firearms. A December 18, 2018 article by Sarah Mervosh  in the New York Times reported that in 2017, 39,773 people died in our country from being shot with a gun. That was up a 1,000 from the previous year. Also in those numbers is another sad finding—almost two-thirds of those deaths were tied to suicides.

Think about this in regard to the 39,773. In our state, the city of Danville has a population of 41,130.

Clearly, much data exists related to gun violence in our country. But, my question is—does this data motivate us to address it? Do we want to wrestle with it, understand it, and correct it? Do we want to stop breaking hearts and disrupting lives?  Or, are we content to shrug these disturbing numbers off, and keep moving in the normal.

Each week at Trinity United Methodist Church, I have the responsibility for putting the staff meeting agenda together. Part of that agenda includes a scripture verse, a quote, and some humor. 

A few weeks ago, I came upon this quote from Clarissa Pinkola Estes:  Our own sorrows seem heavy enough, even when lifted by certain long-term joys. But watching others hurt is the breaker of most any heart.

America, we know, we have watched this breaking of hearts related to gun violence long enough.

So what is the solution?

I’m not sure we can legislate our way out of this mess. 

In the movie, The Shawshank Redemption, prisoner Ellis “Red” Redding appears  before the parole board. A member of the parole board asks Red—“Do you think you have been rehabilitated?” 

Director and screen play writer Frank Darabont, wrote these words as Red’s response:  “There’s not a day goes by I don’t feel regret. Not because I’m in here, or because you think I should. I look back on the way I was then: a young, stupid kid who committed that terrible crime. I want to talk to him. I want to try and talk some sense to him, tell him the way things are. But I can’t. That kid’s long gone and this old man is all that’s left. I got to live with that.”

Upon reflection and the disruption of their own lives, I wonder how many trigger pullers feel regret? I wonder if they wish they had chosen to respond differently? 

I’m no expert, but I sense that many factors contribute to pulling that trigger and permanently disrupting lives. Family erosion, economic instability, fear, peers, being overlooked, fragile mental health— are among pieces that come to mind.

And since, I work for a church, I wonder where is the church in working to solve this mess? After all, in Galatians 6:2, we are reminded to:  Bear one another’s burdens. 

Personally, I need to be asking myself some questions too. As an American what am I contributing in trying to solve gun violence? How am I doing in bearing the burdens of those who have lost a loved one to gun violence?

Our son sent me an article from Washington Post sports columnist Barry Svrluga. The article is about his grandfather’s D-Day journal. In one of the grandfather’s letters, he writes the following after learning that his wife had given birth to their son:

Yes, I have a great deal to live for and somehow I have a feeling that I shall come back to the both of them, but if it is God’s wish that I do not, I shall leave with a prayer, that my son shall live a better life and a safer life in his world than the life lived in the world of his father.

“That my son shall live a better life and a safer life in his world than the life lived in the world of his father,” is embedded deep in the hearts of every mother and father. Losing a daughter or a son to gun violence isn’t the type of disruption a parent expects.

Our response to these disruptive, senseless cycles of gun violence is in our hearts.

The real question is— will I use my heart to disrupt this cycle?


Tears In The Classroom


I am sure there were multiple days during the 2018-2019 school year, when elementary school teacher, Mrs. Bridgeman, did not want to go to work. As a retired educator, there were many days in my career when I did not want to go to work too.

But for Mrs. Bridgeman, the challenge was one student. A student whose reputation preceded him. His track record as a disruptor was well known. No one was immune from the student’s ability to wreak havoc. 

His classmates, bus drivers, cafeteria personnel, librarian, art, music, physical education teachers, substitute teachers, school counselor, and principal were impacted. As a young veteran teacher, nothing in Mrs. Bridgeman’s student teaching experience prepared her for this student.

In a struggle like this, the right to learn for the student and his classmates is disrupted. Very little learning is taking place. Eventually, the parent’s life is  disrupted too. 

Mrs. Bridgeman’s repertoire of classroom management techniques was quickly emptied. She sought assistance through assorted school system supports. Again, suggestions attempted were short lived or had no influence.

There were plenty of days, when Mrs. Bridgeman went home defeated, disheartened, miserable, mentally, emotionally, and physically exhausted. On many occasions, in her mind, she wrote a carefully constructed resignation letter. Sleep was restless—like trying to nap on an airline flight tossed with turbulence.

Yet, somehow each day Mrs. Bridgeman returned to her classroom. Battle weary, she battled another day. 

Mrs. Bridgeman knew this student needed help beyond her interventions and beyond any suggestions that had been offered so far. She dug deep into her fortitude. She was not going to let this student continue to impale himself, his peers, his school, and his family.

Mrs. Bridgeman shifted tactics. Her focus became the student’s parent. In meetings, phone calls, e-mails, Mrs. Bridgeman began to build a relationship with the parent. 

As his teacher, she painted a portrait for the student’s parent. She was honest and realistic. Somehow, Mrs. Bridgeman conveyed—the potential in your son will never be uncovered unless we unravel his need to be a disruptor. 

It took time, but Mrs. Bridgeman built a trust with the parent. A relationship was being constructed. That trust evolved into the parent consenting for additional potential supports from the school system to be explored.

As these protocols were being examined, Mrs. Bridgeman continued to work with the student. Steps forward often were countered with multiple backward steps. Quite often, she was infuriated with herself—“Why do I keep trying? Why am I putting myself through this? Why do I care what happens to this student?”

Deep into the second semester of the school year, the team of professionals who had worked to assess the student was ready to report their findings. Those meetings when findings and recommendations are reported to a parent are often conducted in fragile environments.

Mrs. Bridgeman knew there were no guarantees that the parent would agree to the recommendations. But, Mrs. Bridgeman was hoping the trust she had established might be the pivot point.

Turns out that trust meant something to the parent. Loaded with lots of questions for the team that were answered, the parent agreed with the findings. 

This endorsement allowed for some critical implementations to be put in place before the end of the school year for the student.

While it took some more time for these supports to come together, they did. Though not perfect, the adjustments made on behalf of the student started to have an impact.  

In May, students across the Commonwealth of Virginia take the annual Standards of Learning (SOL) tests. These state implemented test have become an integral part of assessing student academic growth. 

Additionally, the tests are an added level of stress and pressure for principals and their faculties.  A school’s accreditation is tied to the performance of students on these tests.

On a Friday afternoon with a week of testing completed, Mrs. Bridgeman received some news. Her disruptive student who on countless occasions had put her on the brink of resigning had passed his math SOL test.

Immediately, Mrs. Bridgeman burst into tears.

As May was coming to an end and testing completed for another year, Mrs. Bridgeman was interacting with her students one afternoon. She explained to her class that she would not be returning next year. Her husband was going to pursue job opportunities in California.

Immediately, the student who had plucked every nerve in Mrs. Bridgeman’s body for an entire school year burst into tears. 

He cried the rest of the afternoon. He was like putty. He could not be consoled.

Now, here is the scary part. I have no data. But, I would wager every elementary school in America has a disruptor. Some probably have more than one.

But the real question to be asked is how are we going to respond?

And let me assure you, we can’t afford not to respond.