Coming for Christmas 2020: The Heart Changer

Back on April 1, my wife and I were in Raleigh. We were helping our youngest daughter with a move.

Outside her home, I spoke briefly with a UPS delivery driver. I asked him if the company was busy. He grinned and replied, “It’s just like Christmas.” 

The assist for his smile goes to COVID-19. 

This past Tuesday in our church staff meeting via Zoom, our senior pastor ended the meeting with some seed planting. In our  next gathering, he wants us to have discussion about Advent and Christmas. 

Today is Thursday, June 25. In six quick months, it will be Christmas Day.

Go ahead start hurling insults at me. I deserve it for bringing up Christmas in June.

Christmas might seem a long way off, but that day will be here in a blink. I wonder what Christmas 2020 will look like?

I’ll be honest with you, I have  already figured out what I want for Christmas. I want a soon to be released new gadget named a heart changer.

I don’t know about you, but I have a tendency to ignore my heart at Christmas. I become wrapped up in the annual pursuit of perfection through all of the commercial trappings.

Every Christmas, I quietly say to myself that I’m going to brush aside the madness it creates. But, in truth I never do. And the reason I never do is fear.

In the movie Home Alone, screenwriter, John Hughes develops an interesting dialogue between Kevin, an elementary aged youngster, and his elderly neighbor, Marley. The scene takes place in a church sanctuary on Christmas Eve.

Initially, for lots of untrue neighborhood rumors, Kevin is afraid of Marley. But, the polite Marley starts the conversation with “Merry Christmas.” Both Kevin and Marley open up about themselves. Marley shares the story of an old argument that he had with his son. That argument estranged the father and son.

Kevin encourages Marley to reach back out to his son. But Marley tells Kevin he is hesitant, he is afraid that his son will not talk with him.

With lots of respect, Kevin asks Marley, “Aren’t you a little old to be afraid?”

And Marley answers with this,“You can be old for a lot of things.

You’re never too old to be afraid.”

I don’t know about you, but since the middle of March, my brain has been swirling. Fear is at the center of that never ending spin.

I fear COVID-19. I fear  the inability of America to solve our longstanding internal problems. I fear the November election. I fear the future for our children and their children. 

Recently, I found a bit of comfort in Coach K’s comments about the turmoil in America when he said:  “I have been trying to find eloquent words to explain my thoughts regarding the recent acts of injustice in our country, but I cannot be eloquent about this. I am too emotional. I am angry! I am frustrated! I am disgusted and frankly, I am scared.”

Coach K scared? I always viewed him as being tough as nails. But, here is what I love about his comments— he spoke with honesty straight from his heart.

And, I will tell you the truth, that is my biggest fear in this chaos, I am not sure that we have the desire to change our hearts.

I expect the marketing and advertising for the heart changer to start soon. It will be presented in one of those fast talking, 30 second television ads. The cost of the heart changer will be an amazing $9.99.

If someone was really clever, they would run a quiet counter to the $9.99 heart changer with a PSA (Public Service Announcement). 

The PSA would simply be scrolled across the television screen:  

Christmas is coming. Give America a gift—the changing of your heart. Change your heart forever. America needs it now.

In the last stanza of the Christmas carol, “In The Bleak Midwinter,”  a quiet, but moving question is asked—“What can I give him?”

The response is very simple— “give my heart.”

Pulling America out of this mess will require giving and changing our hearts.

That will be tough work, but we have no options.

At the very least, that work will compel us to listen in different ways from what we have attempted in the past.

Courage, patience, and honesty will drive this listening.

Calendar is moving. Christmas is coming. 

And the truth is we don’t need a gimmicky heart changer for $9.99.

No, to change our hearts, we need to stop being stubborn, let go of fear, and work until we have solutions for every injustice.

A companion for your lonely soul: Brian Wilson #78

Occasionally on the Andy Griffith Show, the Darlin family from the nearby hills would amble into the quiet town of Mayberry. Led by their father, Briscoe, he was accompanied by his daughter, Charlene, and her brothers, who in real life were actually a talented bluegrass band from Kentucky named the Dillards.

Usually in an episode when they appeared, at some point music from Briscoe and his sons would be played along with singing from Charlene. In encouraging Sheriff Taylor to pick guitar with them, Briscoe once remarked: “Got time to breathe, got time for music.” 

From my perspective when I think about singer/songwriter, Brian Wilson, I’m glad that he had “time to breathe and time for music.”

Today, June 20, Brian Wilson turns 78.

 It is appropriate that his birthday is today— as it marks the first day of summer. Probably no one in the history of pop music and possibly advertising did a better job of selling summer to teenagers around the world than Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys.

I’ve never met Brian Wilson, but I have met a lot of his songs. And for me, many of his songs are heart touchers.

When one considers his diverse catalog of songs, the strength of his composing, his production techniques, and his unique ability to construct precise and rich background harmonies, I think Brian Wilson stands alone.

What is even more remarkable about his success is this— Brian Wilson has virtually no hearing capacity in his right ear; all of these songs were written via his compensation for this loss of hearing.

And while we are on the topic of remarkable, as a long time fan of Brian and the music he has created with and without the Beach Boys, I find it remarkable that Brian is still alive. He has outlived his demons, and sadly his younger brothers, Dennis and Carl.

Brian is a survivor. 

Brian’s challenges are well documented: starting with a difficult father, a nervous breakdown in the early stages of the Beach Boys fame, substance abuse, and nonstop pressure to constantly produce hit records. Later in his life, the collision of all these factors finally led doctors to diagnose Brian with schizoaffective disorder and mild manic depression.

And yet, Brian has written such beautiful music that brings a happiness to people.

How can a person who has suffered through all these ups and downs create such magical music?

Personally, I think music was God’s gift to Brian. And, I think that gift of music even in the most rotten times of his life,  never abandoned him. Music is his heart, his soul. Music is his friend, his confidante, his safe place.

My Osher Institute teaching pal for the University of Richmond, Joe Vanderford, often reminds me of another Brian gift—his voice.  Go back and listen to his early lead vocals with the Beach Boys. No one could soar like Brian.

Even if you are a marginal fan of the Beach Boys, I think it would be very easy for you to name some of their hit records. I have no desire to walk you back through those songs. I’d rather take you to August 31, 1970.

By the end of 1969, the Beach Boys were bringing closure to their contractural commitments with their original recording company Capitol Records. The late 60s were not good to the Beach Boys. The hit records literally stopped. They were a square peg in the Woodstock generation of music. And yet, somehow, they kept afloat.

Part of treading water came from their concert touring especially overseas. The British still loved them. But, something else was taking place too. 

Brian’s bandmates, Al, Carl, Dennis, Mike, and Bruce had learned a few things by being around Brian in recording studios. Each of them in their own unique ways were finding their songwriting and production paths.

A new recording contract was signed with Warner Brother Records. The group would be a part of the Reprise label with the opportunity for their own Brother Records logo to be imprinted on the new label.

During the recording of their first album for Reprise, there was some special creative energy present in the studio. 

Each band member contributed to the songwriting. Brian was more active in the production. Recording engineer, Stephen Desper, superbly captured the richness of the instrumentation and vocals with each song. What transpired is that the band really worked individually and collectively on this record. A harmony, a cohesiveness existed.

The album named Sunflower was released on August 31, 1970. Despite supportive promotional efforts from Warner/Reprise, the album was a commercial failure. But, the critics, like Rolling Stone magazine’s, Jim Miller, loved it. From lots of angles, Mr. Miller gave the album high marks for many valid reasons.

Sunflower turns 50 this year. 

Unlike my old bag of bones, Sunflower has aged well.

If your ears have never listened to this album, you need to be brave and explore.

And what is really interesting about Sunflower is that the album in a unique way became a rejuvenation point for the Beach Boys. 

The next four years charted an unexpected rediscovery by American fans that brought the band acclaim for their concert performances and their studio recordings.

I could easily walk you through every track of Sunflower, but I will leave you with this one—“Add Some Music To Your Day.”

This song is like a gentle anthem of praise to music. 

And right in the middle, Carl Wilson’s lungs swell like the crest of a Big Sur wind blown wave, and he sings in his sweetest angel voice these true words:  “Music when you’re alone is like a companion for your lonely soul.”

I wonder how many lonely souls found a companion in the music of Brian Wilson?

My hunch is lots of people found that companion in his songs.

But, I’m thankful that Brian’s own soul found a companion in music too.

Happy Birthday Brian Wilson!

I pray there will be many more.

And for anyone who took the time to read this post, take Brian’s advice—go add some music to your day. 

It will be good for your soul.

Hooray for Mrs. Berry

For many reasons, June 9 is probably a special day for lots of people.

But June 9, 2020 was a hooray day for our friend, Lynn Berry. 

Mrs. Berry is a cancer survivor. This past Tuesday marked year number 15 for her being cancer free.

I don’t know about you, but I will take some good news like that in our current upside down world.

In fact, I will celebrate anyone’s proper beat down of cancer.

Of all the things human beings are asked to contend with in their lives, I despise cancer more than anything.

I will never ever, ever, ever forgive cancer for robbing the life of my mother.

My sister is a breast cancer survivor. I can still hear the pain in her voice from the afternoon she tracked me down by phone to share her rotten news.

And that’s the thing about cancer, it is rotten. Rotten to its cellular core. It has no redeeming qualities at all. 

Cancer is the evil of all evils, the meanest of the meanest. Cancer respects no one, I mean no one.

 Cancer doesn’t care if you are 3 or 93. Cancer doesn’t care if you are rich or poor, kind hearted, or mean spirited like cancer. Cancer has no conscience.

I still remember the e-mail from my cousin Alice when she shared the news about her three year old grandson, Eoin. He had been diagnosed with a form of childhood leukemia.

Eoin and his family were lucky. He, his parents, family, friends, and an extraordinary team of nurses and doctors beat it back.

I still wear my orange wrist band that states:  Eoin is a fighter.

Think about your own personal lives. Take a minute, remember the people you know or have known who have been involved in a skirmish with cancer. The names, faces, and connections add up too quickly.

A long time ago, Chester Fritz, a legendary football coach in the Richmond area once told me this little nugget. When your team’s quarterback goes back to throw a pass only one good thing can happen. That good thing is a receiver on the quarterback’s team catches the pass.

Perhaps the same can be said about cancer. The only good thing that can come from a diagnosis is that a person is able to battle the demon out of his/her body for eternity.

For 14 months, I had the privilege of pinch hitting as the school board representative for the Tuckahoe District on the Henrico County School Board. In fact, the member I replaced resigned to devote all of her energy to battle cancer out of her body.

While serving, I had to decide if I wanted to run to fill that spot for a four year term. I thought a lot about the possibility. Discussed what would be involved with my wife and some wise friends.

I concluded two things. Even though I love public education, I am not a politician. Second, I am not a fundraiser. I could not in good conscience ask a friend for a hundred dollars toward my campaign. I would rather that donation go to a good cause, like cancer research.

Perhaps, you remember Daffy Duck from the Warner Brothers Looney Tunes cartoons. From time to time in his own unique phrasing Daffy stated: “You’re despicable.”

Now, I don’t mean to offend you, but in America what we spend to have a candidate elected as president is despicable.

According to an article written by Christopher Ingraham for the April 14, 2017 edition of the Washington Post the estimated price for the entire 2016 presidential campaign was 2.4 billion dollars. Add another 4 billion, and that would include the amount for the congressional elections for the same year.


Thankfully, our research dollars toward  cancer are billions over that 2016 campaign total. 

But that doesn’t mean we couldn’t be wiser with campaign pennies. 

Wonder if a redirected campaign penny allowed a researcher in a lab to discover the cure, and in a blink, despicable cancer was gone.

But, until that day, I will be thankful for Lynn Berry’s 15 years of telling cancer to go to hell.

In that journey, I am thankful for her family, friends, nurses, and doctors that have been and will continue to be a part of her success.

And somewhere in that long, long road I am sure Lynn is thankful for all of the prayers.

Perhaps, Romans 12:12 states it best: Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 


Hooray for Mrs. Berry!

Yard work is good for the soul.

I know what you are thinking. 

Bill, there is something wrong with you. 

At the age of 66, is it true that you still enjoy doing yard work?

Yes, I confess I do.

With yard work,  there is only one thing that garners lots of non-church language—leaf raking. I despise it. If rankings were given, I suspect our Richmond neighborhood would have one of the highest ratios of fallen leaves per square inch as any place in America. 

Since I was kid, I have always puttered around in yards. First, out in my parent’s yard on West Front Street in Burlington. And gradually, I had a few yards that I took care of during the summers for neighbors.

When our oldest daughter and her family lived in Chicago, I even did some landscaping on the grounds of their condo building. 

Neighbors where my in-laws once lived in Farmington, Connecticut tried to steal me away for projects in their yards. 

When they asked me about helping them out, my standard answer was—you can’t afford me. I have three kids in college, or we’re planning a wedding. These nice people would nod, laugh, and continue their walk with disappointment.

And continuing with a relative connection, I’ve helped out in the yards owned by my sister and her husband too. Their farm yard in Snow Camp, North Carolina is a beauty.

My wife, the Commander Supreme, and I have even done yard work in the rental houses where our youngest daughter lives in North Carolina and our son in Richmond.

Now, our son his wife and their two daughters are in their first house just across Patterson Avenue from us.

This spring, the Commander Supreme, our daughter-in-law’s father, our son, and I have blitzed their backyard. For whatever reason, this backyard had been neglected by many previous owners.

 I fully expected some unclassified creature who had been hiding out in all of the debris and undergrowth since the founding of Jamestown to lurch forward and scare the living daylights out of me. Thankfully, that surprising lurch never happened.

But, all of this investment of time and energy into this yard did lead me to share the following observation with our son. 

One afternoon I told him, “You know it has finally dawned on me, that your mother and I have spent more time working in your yard, than you ever spent working in our yard at home.” He just chuckled.

I’ve helped out on the grounds at three schools where I worked during my education career, and from time to time I do some trimming and weeding on the grounds of our church. 

The other day a co-worker noted that I had done some work in one of the church gardens. She complimented me, and went on to recommend that taking care of people’s yards could be something I could do when I really retire. 

I can see the sign on the side of a truck now:  

Billy Bill’s Yard Care

    ( will work for beer and pound cake)

Over the last few years, the Commander Supreme has taken a keen interest in various aspects of our yard. The Commander has quite an eye. She has become a meticulous trimmer. And somedays, her assignments really wear me out.

But, I think that is one of the things I enjoy about the yard work—it is often a good work out. On those brutal humidity laden days, I believe I sweat just as much if not more than if I had gone for an early morning run.

If I happen to spend a summer day working in our yard, and helping out in the yard of our elderly neighbor across the street, then I know these words from Ecclesiastes 5:12 will hold true for me:  “The sleep of a laborer is sweet.”

During this COVID-19 isolation in our bi-weekly Zoom conversations with our college friends, yard work has been a common theme. Maybe, the biggest chuckle came when we learned that one pal uses a small blow torch on weeds.

Yesterday, in our Zoom chatter, this statement surfaced—“Life is tricky.”

Over the course of the last week, we have seen that life is tricky.

Why is life tricky?

Well, there are lots of possible answers.

But, just maybe, some of those answers are tucked deep down in our souls.

I sense that we have reached a point where those tucked away items need to be brought out and carefully placed in the sunlight.

They need to become conversation, opportunities to listen, to learn, and to gently push us out of our comfort zones.

I recently read an article by Dave Hyde, a sportswriter, for the Sun Sentinel, a south Florida newspaper. Mr. Hyde was writing about the passing of legendary Miami Dolphin football coach, Don Shula.

Mr. Hyde recalled the first press conference after Coach Shula had been hired. A reporter asked if he had a plan over a three to five year span to turn the losing Dolphins around. Coach Shula’s response was very simple, “My plan is to go to work.”

And go to work he did, he turned the team around. 

Right now in America, we must commit to “go to work.” 

Coach Shula saw a challenge, an opportunity.

America too has a challenge, an opportunity.

In some ways for a long, long time we have neglected our challenges.

When yard work is neglected, the challenge to get the yard back in shape is more difficult.

What lies before America is hard work, but it is work that must be done.

If I really love our country, then I must “go to work” so that I can be a part of helping our country solve our challenges.

I have four good reasons to support why I need to “go to work.” 

Take a look at this photo from our backyard.

It is a classic, a younger brother spraying his older sister on a warm spring afternoon.

I owe to the future of our four grandchildren and all children in America  to “go to work.”

Like my soul works in the yard, my soul needs to “go to work” for the future.

Whether you want to admit it or not, your soul needs it too.

And when we make this commitment, like the laborer in Ecclesiastes our sleep will be better.

God is disappointed in me.

On the morning of Sunday, May 31, I was bad. 

I did not Zoom with our Sunday school class, nor did I tune in via uStream for our church service at 11.

Instead, I was in our son’s backyard. 

Along with one of his friends, and our daughter-in-law’s father, we had been recruited to put the finishing touches of assembly on a swing set. 

 Just in case you don’t know, swing sets aren’t simple swing sets anymore. They are now elaborate play sets with all kinds of bells and whistles. 

The assemblage requires at the very least an on call consultant who has the ability to interpret the very simple instructions and drawings in the very thick manual. In this case, our son was lucky, the consultant was his very capable wife, who at least read the manual. 

I confess, I was tardy in arriving, but I did bring along the requested tools—a sledge hammer, 8 foot step ladder, and a drill.

My assignment was to figure out the linkage for the three swing options. The results were simple—I failed. But, after staring into the instruction page for 3 hours, 44 minutes, and 17 seconds I finally figured it out.

Turns out, my son, who I still love dearly, gave me the wrong pack of caliper clips for my assignment.

While I was staring into that instruction page, I took a phone call from my friend, Katie Gooch. Katie is the Director of the Pace Center for student ministries(Wesley Foundation) on the campus of Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). 

Katie’s programming is housed in the former Pace United Methodist Church at the corner of Pine and Franklin just across from Richmond’s Monroe Park. Unfortunately, Katie was calling to give me some discouraging news. Her building had been a target from the demonstrations related to the protests of George Floyd’s death.

Out of the blue, a few years ago, I was asked to serve as the property chair for the Board of Higher Education for the Virginia Conference of the United Methodist Church. I basically was given the responsibility of keeping an eye on the Wesley Foundation properties on college campuses across Virginia. 

I knew the Pace building well, and I listened intently as Katie walked me through the damage. We talked, and she sketched out a game plan for securing the building. Her plan made sense, and Katie promised to follow-up as she organized her plan.

Without too many more hiccups, the play set came together. The final finishing touches were tweaked, and of course the final seal of inspection and approval came from, Josie, our soon to be three year old granddaughter.

Just as we were breaking for lunch, Katie called again to let me know that a team was assembling at Pace at 1 p.m. If I was available, she requested that I bring an extra step ladder and head down to assist.

With the play set christened by Josie, I departed for Pace.

I drove down Patterson Avenue, and then hooked a left on to Monument Avenue via North Thompson Street. It was a beautiful blue sky afternoon, perfect temperature. I saw people on the grassy medians of Monument sunbathing, some strolling with their dogs, and others just sitting in the sunshine. 

The deeper I drove down Monument, the more the traffic increased. And then, as I started to encounter the Civil War monuments, I saw what was creating the stir—the monuments had been severely defaced by the actions of some of Saturday night’s protestors. I did not stop and gawk, but the messages and damage was significant.

Monument changes to Franklin after the last statue, and at a house of worship further down Franklin, I noted plywood being installed over windows. Not sure if that was a preventative measure or responding to damage.

I reached Pace and found a place to park along Pine Street. The crew was already busy cutting plywood. Twelve windows had been damaged— nine along the back alley, and three facing Pine Street. It appeared the protesters picked up anything loose and hurled that object toward the windows.

Luckily, none of the stained glass windows surrounding the Sanctuary were damaged. But, it took the volunteers quite a bit of time to gingerly remove the sharp edged shards from the old metal window frames.

There was a bit of graffiti spray painted on the alley side brick wall. I’m sure attempting to remove it will be painful.

But, maybe in some respects, the Pace building was lucky. Ask the loading dock area of the VCU high-rise dorm that sits beside Pace. The dock and lots of its receptacles for removing trash and other items was torched. I mean in some instances melted to the ground.

Katie asked one of the volunteers to paint some kind messages on the plywood. Offering Pace as a source of help and hope for the community during this tragic crisis.

A group photo was taken of the COVID-19 masked volunteers. Katie and her property manager, Jean, worked out an additional security measure for the front doors. And then, I headed back home with no intention of working my way back along Monument.

It has been a few years, but I have never forgotten this quote in the Richmond Times-Dispatch when former United States Defense Secretary, Robert Gates, spoke at the Richmond Forum. Gates told the audience:  “The United States faces threats from extremists and unstable regimes around the world, but it’s the nation’s own political incivility that poses the gravest risk.”

America has been an imperfect union for too long. At this stage of my life, I would not call the state of our union sound. And, if I am truly honest with myself, our union has never been perfectly sound. There has always been something gnawing at our veneer. 

We are a spiraling mess. We are a country more capable of hurling astronauts into space than we are at solving years of social injustice, unrest, and our own incivility. 

I am a part of that spiraling mess.

I haven’t tried hard enough to fully comprehend and understand what is like to be an African American in our country.

And I haven’t tried hard enough to apply in my daily living the parable of the Good Samaritan. 

Jesus told the questioning lawyer how to live his life. Follow the example of the Good Samaritan in caring for your neighbor—“go and do likewise.”

When have I truly gone and done likewise?

When have I truly been the one who initiated mercy in the moment of crisis?

When have I advocated for justice, mercy, and understanding?

I think God will be disappointed in my answers.



Fear has kept me in my silo.

Fear has prevented me from going out and doing likewise.

But, fear did not prevent the Good Samaritan from showing mercy.


Because the Good Samaritan at that very moment of decision grounded his actions in these words from the Bible:  “love your neighbor as yourself.”

In the movie, The Green Book, I’m not sure which screenwriter Nick Vallelonga, Brian Hayes Currie, or Peter Farrelly wrote this line:  “It takes courage to change people’s hearts.” 

Those words ring true to me.

God’s disappointment in me is really aimed at my heart.

And his real question for me is very simple.

In turbulent times, do I have the courage to change my heart, but also to help people change their hearts?

Heart changing isn’t easy.

Heart changing is grounded in: “Go and do likewise, love your neighbor as yourself.”