Some, never get away

We were making good time.

The interstate was behind us.

Now, the car hugged two-lane state roads.

Our youngest daughter, Elizabeth, was at the wheel. She has the same heavy foot gene as her mother, my beloved wife, the Commander Supreme.

From the single back seat with all kinds of deemed necessary vacation junk crammed around me, I hold on tight. 

I take in the landscape of the North Carolina coastal plain as we barrel toward Surf City located on Topsail Island.

Following orders, I had scrawled with my award winning chicken scratch the capital letters NC in my calendar notebook for July 3-10.

It is always nice to get away. But, I will confess that I struggle with the packing of the car and the rooftop carrier. 

Without question, my Methodist upbringing is severely compromised as I shove in the car and the carrier stuff that by the end of the week we will never use.

The Commander Supreme had planned, plotted, negotiated, and reserved a house for the two of us, our three children, their spouses, a significant friend, and grandchildren to enjoy.

The further east we push, the closer we come to the Surf City Bridge.

To access the bridge, drivers must negotiate a traffic circle, a rotary. This requires alertness, patience, and obeying one of the most abused road signs in America—the yield sign.

The bridge spans, high over the intracoastal waterway and a patchwork of inlets, sandbars, and isolated spits of green come into view. These fragments of green remind me of pieces of a puzzle—dislocated from either the mainland or the barrier island itself. 

They are fragile, held together by marsh grasses, wind scrubbed trees, and the muck of the marshland. Their fragility is grounded in a restless pulse from season to season never knowing when tides, winds, and storms will conspire to steal more of their turf.

On the island side, as we exit the bridge, another traffic circle and properly placed yield signs await Elizabeth’s navigation.

As soon as we are on the main island road, my white knuckled grip on the door handle relaxes, the tension in my shoulders slumps, and my eyes start scanning both sides of the flat road. 

With few exceptions, the road is lined with beach houses. This place is dense with houses. No opportunity to build has been lost. A mixture of new, old, and lots of in between is in place.

We can’t check in the house until 4. So, we are headed to the Beach Shop and Grill for a late lunch.

Now, I’m going to pause and fast forward. 

We had a good week. 

What makes a good week at the beach?

Lots of ingredients in a good week at the beach, but the obvious key is the weather. 

We only lost one day thanks to Tropical Storm Elsa. Luckily, Elsa brought a bit of rain and wind to Topsail, and the storm moved quickly up the coast. 

But, the ocean was all churned up while Elsa sailed by. Wind driven white caps prevailed. Waves and undertow pounded the beach.

The wind blew sand covering beach access stairwells. But, when the wind finally subsided, some surfaces of sand were rippled and ridged like a snow bank blown against the foundation of a house.

And speaking of wind, I am thankful on those sunny days at the beach when the wind blew the shibumi. 

The shibumi is my new best friend. Its ingenious design provides shade for grumpy old geezers like me who don’t want to help my dermatologist purchase another beach house. If you are like me—sun shy, then you should get to know shibumi.

The grandkids were good. Nuclear meltdowns were few, and if one unraveled, Aunt Kathryn’s diplomacy saved the day.

Plus, the grandkids individually and collectively made their Nana laugh. That’s a good thing when Nana laughs. I will always cherish the beautiful innocence of the fleeting humor found in grandchildren.

Maybe at some point, I will write about my three runs, my fishing, and our Friday afternoon boat ride with our son-in-law’s sister, Pam, and her family. That ride showed us Topsail from an entirely different angle—its backside from the intracoastal and along the sound.

Our Saturday morning departure brings the same repacking dread for me. Except this time, we have less, and by the grace of God, we are not using the rooftop carrier. That will make God happy. My profanity is significantly reduced.

Of course, it is a postcard perfect morning as we leave Katelyn Drive. 

Soon, we are backed up in traffic approaching the rotary to cross the Surf City Bridge.

The Commander Supreme is behind the wheel. I expect we might set a new land speed record in getting back to Richmond. But, then I remember this is summer, it is Saturday, lots of traffic.

Following the directional prompts on her phone, we travel the backroads of the coastal plain.

I see forests thick with trees and undergrowth. 

Then in a few more miles, another vast expanse of acreage will appear. But, this time, the trees are gone.

Occasionally, we whirl by large parcels of land whose signage indicates they are used by the Marine Corps for training.

Towns are few. Intersections might have a gas station. 

Farming still exist—fields of corn and soybeans dominate the landscape at certain points. There must be something special about coastal plain soil.

As we zoom toward the interstate, I peer into yards and the homes on those plots. 

In some instances, I wonder how people live in these weather beaten, unkept trailers and wood framed houses. These homes appears so fragile that I imagine the wash from the fluttering wings of a gnat could topple them.

My brain talks to me. 

My brain says, you know, Bill, I imagine the people who live in these weary looking homes never get away. 

A vacation is never on their radar. They are simply trying to survive another day, another challenge.

My brain continues to drift. 

These people trying to survive, trying to breathe for another day, must be curious about the license plates they see. Out of staters whizzing by heading toward their get aways in beach mansions.

Maybe, these survivors dream when they see license plates from Virginia, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Ohio. But, that’s probably the extent of it— a dream.

The next time you are able to get away, take more than a moment to appreciate your blessings. Don’t take those blessings for granted. For we all know—in a blink life can change.

And also take a moment to be mindful of the people in those frail homes along your route—some will never get away. 

Sand covered beach stairs from Tropical Storm Elsa on Topsail Island, North Carolina photo Bill Pike

So church, how is your Flemish bond?

Monday, March 8 proved to be an interesting day at Trinity, a large United Methodist Church, located just outside of Richmond, Virginia.

The day started with an unhappy fire alarm panel projecting a high pitched warning sound. This was followed by the discovery of a leaking hot water heater, a boiler in alarm, and a back up battery for the church’s internet server failing. 

As songwriter, John Phillips, wrote in his ode to Monday—“Monday, Monday can’t trust that day.”

Monday usually gets a bad rap, but if you are the caretaker for a sprawling church building, things can go wrong any day of the week.

To top those little building challenges off, I had to prepare for our monthly Trustees meeting to be held via Zoom later in the day. I’ll give our Trustees credit, they have embraced the Zoom technology. This has allowed us to keep tabs on our building and grounds during the pandemic.

Made up of volunteers from the congregation, Trustees bring a wide range of experiences and expertise to the table. In all my years of working with Trustees, we have worked through a variety of challenges and requests. While reaching consensus isn’t always easy, the discussions and the lens used to assess situations is vital to that process.

For this meeting, a number of standard items were on the agenda. But, our senior pastor tossed into that mix some questions related to COVID-19— how were we positioned for a much anticipated reopening?

As important as those questions were, this group of Trustees had two critical decisions in front of them: approving the final phase of our exterior signage project and whether to go a step further in considering a renovation project to help our kids ministry.

The Trustees were coming off a successful renovation project. This project had carved out from existing space a new center for our middle and high school age youth.  

Sometimes, in my role as Director of Operations for the church, I gently nudge the curiosity of the Trustees. In this case, could that successful energy from the youth center be harvested to renovate an existing space for our kids ministry?

While our wing for children has served us well, it is showing its age. It looks tired, worn, weary, and dated. A fresh coat of paint is not the answer. 

That wing suffers from what I call “congregational tired eyes.” Tired eyes simply means that a congregation has become too complacent about how a section of the building looks including its functionality. Tired eyes are not healthy for a church—they limit growth.

Our Trustees had a good discussion about the merits of renovating a section of the building to help our kids ministry. This discussion was pushed along by a  written summary report from our Kids Director. She and her team of parents had recently completed a listening and dreaming session with the same architect we had used in designing the youth center.

With an understanding of the urgency of the need for creating this space, the Trustees approved allowing the architect to develop a very basic scope of work that could be shared with a commercial builder. This would give the Trustees an estimate of the cost of the project.

For a couple of years, our Trustees have been inching toward the finish line for completing an interior and exterior signage project. This need came from work with a consultant and assorted church leadership teams. Our building is cumbersome for a first time guest, and even members can have trouble navigating.

During the pandemic, we were able to remove all of the old interior signage and have all of the new signs installed. The new signs are a significant improvement, and they also include way finding signs at key entry points and intersections.

Preliminary renderings of exterior signs from the signage company had been submitted to the Trustees to review. From that first examination, some tweaks were made, and now the Trustees had the final proofs to review and approve.

The vice-chair for the Trustees led this discussion. She had been involved with the project from the beginning. Her leadership and diligence had kept the project moving.

As noted earlier, Trustees bring a wide range of backgrounds, experiences, and expertise to the group. And the discussion about the exterior signs was going well until a Trustee brought the words—Flemish bond into the discussion.

The Trustee was referencing the brick pattern used on every square inch of our building’s exterior. Flemish bond is a very traditional brick pattern and an expensive one to install. 

For this Trustee, he was concerned that the shape of the proposed exterior signs were nontraditional—the signs were not square or rectangular in shape. He believed the proposed different shape of the new signs would be a distinct and significant contrast to the traditional Flemish bond pattern.

As you might imagine, this observation created quite a discussion. Our co-chair diplomatically countered the Flemish bond assertion with some insights from the designer of the signs.

And having been a part of the signage project since the beginning, I was asked to offer an opinion too.

My response tried to focus on what seemed obvious to me—how many members of our church or even a first time guest would recognize the brick pattern as Flemish bond?

 I think most guests are going to say what an attractive building, but only a handful might say it is attractive because of the brick pattern selected by the architect.

Additionally, I stated that only a few people might say—“the shape of those exterior signs is in contrast to the traditional Flemish bond brick work.”

More comments and discussion took place, and finally a motion was made for a vote.

The non-traditional shaped signs were approved. 

Even though the traditional shaped signs were not approved, the Flemish bond observation did offer valuable insights about vision, perspective, experiences, and tradition.

Churches are steeped in traditions. 

But sometimes, I sense that churches can become too anchored to those traditions. In some instances, traditions can become an inflexible paralysis for a church. If this happens, churches can become very one dimensional in everything that the church offers.

Some church members are like that—one dimensional. They only participate in one aspect of the church. That is their only interaction in the life of the church. This in turn can limit their vision and understanding of the church.

Ideally, Trustees need to be able to see and understand the church they serve from a variety of angles and lens. A one dimensional mind set from the Trustees could prove to be debilitating for a church. 

Flemish bond, traditional shaped signs, non-traditional shaped signs was a good learning experience for the Trustees.

But is there a deeper lesson here for churches?

I think the answer is yes. 

COVID-19 turned the world upside down. Churches are and were a part of that flip.

Perhaps, this pandemic has given churches an opportunity to rethink, re-examine, and  maybe recast their futures.

What can churches learn from the traditional Flemish bond as they contemplate the patterns of their pasts?

 Could this be a time to appreciate that our well-established patterns have sustained us for years, while also asking will these predictable templates continue to sustain us into the future? 

More importantly, isn’t this the moment to ask—if we are going to continue to connect with people and build relationships with them are those time honored traditions going to connect with people who have never had a church life or church to call home?

While important, my hunch is those traditional Flemish bonds, the predictable programs, the worn-out facilities in a church need to be gently jolted like a seismic shift in tectonic plates.

A one dimensional vision, grounded in the past is not going to sustain a church in this post-pandemic world.

After that 90 minute Trustee meeting, I was ready to go home—ready to put a challenging Monday behind me.

But, I was also appreciative of what Monday had given me—Flemish bond— a lesson in vision from the past and the future.

The Flemish bond brick pattern at Trinity UMC photo Bill Pike

Buying groceries, food insecurity

Friends in the Monday, July 5, 2021 edition of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, I am honored to have an op-ed piece. I wrote about food insecurity. Maybe, you have some of the same concerns in your community.  Here is the link:

Load of groceries on the way to the Sherbourne Food Pantry photo Bill Pike