Sunday morning quarterbacking: the ladder heave

During an interview with the Oversight Committee For The Protection Of Extension Ladders, the Director of Operations at Trinity United Methodist Church, Bill Pike, admitted that he had heaved an extension ladder into a stairwell.

Fortunately, the well constructed Werner ladder sustained no injuries, nor did the rugged surface of the stairwell.

Of course, two HVAC contractors, who were with Pike in the stairwell at the time are still in a state of shock.

They were surprised that such a seemingly nice person could snap in a split second. When the contractors asked Pike if they could help him pick up the ladder, he told them: “No, I’m going to let the ladder cool off.”

This whole incident had come about because Pike had miscalculated the size of the ladder in trying to gain access to an attic hatch at the top of the stairwell. No matter which way he turned with the ladder— he clanked into walls, stair railings, and ceiling. Fortunately, he narrowly missed a collision with a sprinkler head.

For his ladder heave, the Oversight Committee For The Protection Of Extension Ladders, Pike is required to take a class on ladder trauma, audit a class on high school geometry, and is sentenced to one year of probation when using an extension ladder on church grounds. That probation requires that Pike must have another church employee or a member of the congregation with him when using the ladder.

Throughout the proceedings, Pike was remorseful. He acknowledged that the extension ladder had been a loyal friend in helping him gain access to unreachable points around the building and grounds. Pike was released to the custody of the chair of the Trustees, Jim Crowder, and Ronnie Johnson, head building caretaker.

I am ashamed to admit it, but I really did heave that extension ladder into the stairwell on the afternoon of Wednesday, February 23. I snapped. I was frustrated that I had not thought more carefully about gaining access to the attic hatch.

In truth, lots of things at church make me snap internally.

Kindhearted, well intended members ding me about lighting, speaker screen covers, chipping paint, etc.

They are correct to nag. I’m imperfect.

Some days, I suffer from tiredeyesitis. And despite tiredeyesitis, it is my job to make, or coordinate the repairs.

The pandemic years have been a challenge for our church.

Stress has impacted the staff and the congregation.

In a recent Zoom meeting of our Healthy Church Team, we worked through making a decision about relaxing the requirement to wear masks.

The meeting was long. The discussion grounded in trying to do what is in the best interest of the congregation from a health and safety perspective.

This was a challenging, but diplomatic conversation—no one snapped like the ladder heaver.

Yet, we needed a gentle reminder from our associate pastor, Hung Su Lim.

He reminded us of the following— Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Matthew 22: 37-39.

No doubt, we are weary and worn from the pandemic.

We want our friend normal to reappear in the blink of an eye.

I’m sorry, but normal isn’t coming back.

We are going to be wrestling with post pandemic trauma for a long, long time.

That wrestling is not going to be easy.

Life is never easy.

But, we do have a chance to make a change.

If you, me, we, us could embrace and live—‘love your neighbor as yourself,’ we might discover a better normal.

The tossed ladder cooling off Photo by Bill Pike

Body Closed For Cancer Repairs. We love you Marcie Shea!

I have an early morning routine.

The routine came from my parents.

In the predawn silence at the kitchen table, I read the daily devotional from the Upper Room, study the recommended scripture, and then I torment God—I pray.

When my praying ends, God cheers.

Clearly, I am no theologian.

The Bible perplexes me.

Yet, some verses from the Bible give me hope in a struggling world.

Jeremiah 29:11 is one of those hopeful verses: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

Back on January 29, a funeral service was held at our church for one of our members, Barbara Burton. Barbara battled stage four kidney cancer for four years.

If cancer was not enough of a challenge, Barbara and her husband, Milt, lost their daughter, Alysia Basmajian, in the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center Twin Towers on September 11, 2001.

Barbara’s loss of her daughter, and her battle with cancer are a direct contradiction to Jeremiah’s scripture: “I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

In August of 2018, Henrico County School Board member, Lisa Marshall, announced she was resigning from the school board to focus on her battle with cancer.

After applying to fill this vacancy, in October of 2018, I was appointed to fill out Mrs. Marshall’s term.

My appointed term ended in December 2019. I’m not a politician. I opted not to run.

In that November 2019 election, Marcie Shea, an outstanding community leader, was elected to take my place.

Mrs. Shea has given great leadership to our school system in these very challenging times. Noting her skills, board members elected Mrs. Shea as the chairman in January of 2022.

Just days before being elected chairman, Mrs. Shea made a heartbreaking public announcement. Six years into remission, breast cancer returned. This time the cancer is stage four and inoperable. True to her internal fortitude, Mrs. Shea plans to stay in office while taking the prescribed treatments.

Mrs. Shea’s announcement, is another direct contradiction to Jeremiah’s scripture: “I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

Since the summer of 1992, I have despised cancer.

On August 31, 1992, that stealer of life took my mother. I will never forget, nor forgive this intrusion.

When life goes wrong, I am a finger pointer.

When life does go wrong, rarely do I take the time to search deeply into my inner soul to really understand what went wrong—I’m too busy pointing that finger.

God knows that my finger points in his direction quite a bit.

I want him to intervene. I want him to right the wrongs I see.

I want God to confront the devilish cancer.

I want God to say, “Hey you pernicious pestilence, back off. Barbara and Marcie have suffered already. Enough. Leave them alone.”

Perhaps like me, you have determined that life doesn’t work that way.

Sometimes, I wonder how much of the bad in life is from our own doing.

We were given this beautiful world, but we seem intent on destroying it.

We explore Antarctica. We trash it.

We explore outer space. We trash it too.

Speaking of space, we recently launched the James Webb Telescope way out into the blue yonder. This telescope cost ten billion dollars.

Once properly positioned, this most powerful of all telescopes will allow scientist to see what our universe was like after the Big Bang. Just in case you want to know that was 200 million years ago.

Ten billion dollars to look into the past.

Is this our best thinking?

Why can’t we commit ten billion dollars to blast cancer out of this universe?

On Wednesday, February 16, the local nonprofit, Jill’s Blankets, took over the fellowship hall at our church. Jill’s Blankets makes beautiful fleece blankets for cancer patients. The blankets help to keep patients warm during and after treatments.

That day, volunteers made forty five blankets, and within twenty four hours, forty of the blankets had been delivered to patients.

For me, that is a good application of: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

Those volunteers gave the patients a bit of hope for the future.

Marcie Shea, and anyone else in our world who is in the trenches with cancer—hold on to this—we love you, not with harm, but with prayers of hope.

Hope that prayers of love will allow you to send that cancer straight to hell.

Graphic image designed by Elizabeth Pike

Sunday morning quarterbacking: Due to lack of interest, church is closed.

For the last ten years, I’ve had the privilege of working in our church. My life prior to church work was schools.

Churches and schools have much in common.

Both work with people.

Budgets, staffs, buildings, and curriculum are in their footprint.

Churches and schools are in plain public view. This equals more scrutiny and criticism.

And over the last two years, thanks to COVID-19, schools and churches have been walloped by this pandemic.

At our church, Trinity United Methodist, our response to the pandemic has been a week to week scramble to react to the whims of this unfriendly virus.

The Captain Kangaroo cartoon character Tom Terrific used his funnel shaped “thinking cap” to figure out life’s challenges. Churches have been pushed to put on their collective “thinking caps” too.

When the pandemic shutdown our building, we shifted our Sunday worship to a virtual broadcast. Luckily, we had the technology infrastructure in place to accomplish this. But, we were also required to invest in newer technology to keep us current.

As the virus teased us with a decline in cases, we started a spring early morning worship service in one of our parking lots. Sometimes, weather conditions were a factor, but overall this approach was a refreshing change.

Being outside, seemed to work really well for young families with children. They had space to move around. Being outside allowed the environment to absorb their chatter unlike the cramped confines of a sanctuary pew.

Our staff worked to implement other program options too. Some found traction, some didn’t.

But during this time, there was always the pandemic undertow of division. That division came from policies for dealing with the pandemic.

Initially, this was a collaborative effort from the Virginia United Methodist Conference and our local district. One requirement was for our church to develop our own healthy church team. This team consisting of staff and congregation members was charged with monitoring the pandemic and developing our response.

No matter how hard this team worked to keep people healthy and safe, no decision completely satisfied every member of our congregation.

In turn, we lost members who became frustrated with our policies when compared to other churches in the area.

Clearly, those departures had an impact. And they served to reaffirm that no matter the team’s decisions—wins were few in this environment.

But, in truth, churches were not in a winning position before the pandemic either.

Back on December 14, 2021, the latest Pew Research Center findings revealed: “That about three-in-ten American adults are now religiously unaffiliated. Self-identified Christians make up 63% of the U.S. population in 2021, down from 75% a decade ago.”

The Pew data continues to validate what churches have known for several years—finding the path to bring people back into church is a challenge.

In Tony Morgan’s book The Unstuck Church, the author uses a bell curve diagram to chart the life stages of a church. Mr. Morgan starts with the exciting launch, and sadly, concludes with the church being on life support.

From my work in a church, I sense churches really struggle with attempts to change.

The capacity to change is grounded in the ability of church staffs and their congregations to form honest relationships. Staffs and congregations must be able to talk, listen, and acknowledge differences.

Despite being in a weary and worn COVID-19 environment, churches must insure that these challenging conversations take place. Failure to talk and ponder the future will only continue to reduce the ability of churches to pull out from this downward spiral.

In Ecclesiastes Chapter 3, the point is made that there is a time and season for everything. The word “time” is cited twenty-nine times in those eight verses.

Time might be a critical piece for churches to consider in figuring out their futures. How do churches reinvent themselves with compelling offerings that will make the “religiously unaffiliated” curious enough to give of their time to check out church?

No matter whether a person is “religiously unaffiliated” or a longstanding member, churches are vying to capture time on either person’s calendar.

One thing is very clear to me—churches can’t continue to rely upon their past successes to sustain them in the future. Why? We are in a different world.

With urgent diligence, churches must invest in time to find a path forward.

Otherwise, “Due to lack of interest, church is closed” will become a dismal reality.

Author’s note: Sunday Morning Quarterbacking: Due to lack of interest, church is closed was submitted to the Richmond Times-Dispatch for consideration as an op-ed piece. On Sunday, February 20, 2022, the piece ran in the commentary section of the newspaper. I am honored when a piece of my writing is published beyond this blog site.

Pacing The Tease Of Spring

On the morning of Saturday, February 12, my neighborhood run started late. The keyboard on my laptop had a hold on me. It wouldn’t let go as I searched for words in what’s left of my old brain.

When I did leave the house around 7:30, the temperature was forty five degrees. Not bad for a February morning, but there was a brisk breeze out of the south, so I wasn’t running in shorts and a t-shirt.

Since Wednesday, spring had been teasing us. Afternoon temperatures had been in the sixties, with lots of blue sky and sunshine. Later on this pretty Saturday, we could hit seventy degrees.

But don’t get excited, on Sunday our projected high temperature is thirty nine degrees, with a cold rain changing over to snow.

I took my 3/28/11 route through the neighborhood. When I came to my right turn off Baldwin Road on to Westham Parkway, I saw something unusual—a pack of runners, with a longer strand of runners behind them.

Usually, I’m about the only fool out here. I slugged across Westham Parkway, so that I would be facing traffic as I ran. The runners were polite, young, and of course, many were attired in shorts and t-shirts.

One asked how I was doing, and I responded, “old.”

What I really wanted to say was slow down. Take a good look at me. This might be you in a few years as that spry heart zipped by me.

Up where Westham splits, in the median was a water stop. Several of the runners paused for some hydration.

The polite passing continued up Westham.

Some were involved in road chatter. Others were silent. It was a diverse group of men and women. All ages. Shapes and sizes. Fast, slow, and in between. I admired their commitment of time and investment in their health.

And somewhere in that investment, there is an appreciative shoe company, and maybe an orthopedic surgeon dreaming of a faster car or a bigger beach house.

On my loop back down Westham, I was curious. At the water station, I asked the gentleman in charge about the training targets for this group. He told me the runners were a mix of half and full marathoners, and some were prepping for the Boston Marathon.

Back on January 31, I bought a new pair of running shoes. By expert standards, I was long overdue.

The young man who waited on me was impressed when I removed the insole from my old pair of shoes, and I showed him the neatly printed date of my last shoe purchase.

The salesperson listened to my whines about my current shoe, and I could see he was contemplating his inventory. I learned he was in graduate school, a physics major, with a goal to eventually earn his doctorate in physics. I told him I was impressed with his brains.

I informed him that I had a budget, and of course the two pairs of shoes he brought out for me to try were not in my budget.

I asked him if he was married, his was answer was no. Then I suggested to him, if I purchased either of your recommendations, in couple of days, you’ll be reading my obituary. He laughed.

But, I made the out of budget purchase. The salesperson had properly fitted my old feet. The shoes felt right.

During my post-purchase days, my conscience was really working on me. But, that came to an end.

My wife and our youngest daughter countered my second guessing with this wisdom—you supported a local business, and at your old, old age your feet deserved it.

And then I reasoned to myself, if I were to croak while out for a run, at least my feet died happy.

On that Saturday morning run, I noticed the back of a t-shirt on one of the runners who whizzed by me. Printed on the back of the shirt was the word—“pacer.” In that particular road race, this gentleman gave of his running expertise to help pace a group of runners.

Life is a race.

Yet, as I race through life, I rarely think about my pace.

My guess is you probably don’t think of your life pace either.

Out of all our seasons, our slog from winter to spring might be the most challenging. Maybe getting through winter is about pace— our ability to adapt.

I never was one to get caught up in the hoopla over Groundhog Day.

Winter is winter. Winter knows its pace.

But, I love that scene in the movie Groundhog Day, when Phil portrayed by Bill Murray, tells the groundhog driving in a stolen pickup truck, “don’t drive angry, don’t drive angry.”

That is good advice to the groundhog, and for me too.

In our two plus years of dealing with this pandemic, we have attempted to pace ourselves with its ups and downs. But, one thing is clear to me—we are still driving angry.

Despite my quibbles with winter, I admire one of its peaceful traits.

Winter allows us to see the whole tree free of its foliage.

Winter allows us to peer deep into the landscape of a stand of silent trees along a Virginia byway.

Winter wetlands, along the banks of the James River/Huguenot Bridge Richmond, Virginia photo Bill Pike

I wonder if winter is trying to tell us something about our vision, our sight, and our capacity to see.

Is winter reaching out to a worn and weary country?

Is winter nudging us to look beyond our own stark, bareness, and to peer deeper into our hearts?

I’m not sure.

But, I do know this—we can’t continue to drive angry.

Somewhere out there, Spring is pacing its arrival.

With or without us, Spring will show up.

But, I think Spring is hoping that our pace, our driving through life is less angry with each other.

And that makes me wonder, why is it so hard for me to live the wisdom in 1 John Chapter 4 verses 19-21:

 We love because he first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.

Perhaps, my difficulty to follow this wisdom is grounded in my inability to consistently follow the real Pacer in life.

Love must replace my angry driving into spring.

I hope love can become my pacer.

Up In Heaven Billy Bokkon Is Smiling

On the afternoon of Thursday, January 20, a cold, gray winter rain was changing to snow. I crossed the James River via the Huguenot Bridge headed toward the Woody Funeral Home in Chesterfield County. Seemed like the snow was falling harder south of the James.

Faye Bokkon, an outstanding Social Studies teacher, that I had worked with at Hermitage High School had lost her husband, Billy. A visitation for family and friends was taking place this afternoon. My schedule would not allow me to attend Billy’s funeral on Friday.

Billy was a good man. He was our insurance agent. He held our lives in paper policies.

Billy reminded me of my father who also sold insurance. They shared a common trait—honesty.

In our interactions with Billy, my wife and I found him to be honest, always thinking, always looking ahead, and we trusted his experience, his wisdom.

For the last few years, Billy’s health had been declining. On January 10, his body granted him the peace that he deserved.

At the visitation, I was able to speak with Faye for a few minutes. She was emotional. This was a tough loss. Her moist eyes and shaky voice affirmed her sadness.

But, I believe in Faye. She is a survivor. People like Faye, who dedicate their lives to classrooms with high school students packed in it, know how to work through life’s challenging moments.

Billy’s obituary cited his passions—family, the University of Virginia, and the village of Midlothian.

Billy was an avid sport fans. His love for the teams at the University of Virginia was unsurpassed.

Through a family connection Billy and Faye attended lots of football and basketball games, and the annual ACC mens basketball tournament.

When they attended the ACC tournament, I would ask Faye to pick up a copy of the tournament’s program for our son, Andrew. Andrew loved going through that packed magazine full of league history and lots of statistics.

Thanks to my brainwashing, Andrew and I cheered for the ACC team that wore the darker shade of blue. Billy knew this, and a couple of times he gave us his game tickets to watch Duke and Virginia play in Charlottesville. Andrew loved it.

In 2004, Faye and Billy attended the ACC tournament in Greensboro. Billy told me he would call if Virginia lost in the quarterfinals. A loss would mean there would be some extra tickets around from friends.

I think it was after midnight when he called saying he had two tickets for us to attend the semifinals and the finals.

Early on Saturday morning, Andrew and I drove to Greensboro. We met Billy in the lobby of the hotel, paid for the tickets, and worked our way to the Greensboro Coliseum. The seats were spectacular. We had a blast. Duke won their game, and they would be facing Maryland on Sunday in the finals.

The ride back to Richmond after the game on Sunday was long and painful—Duke lost to Maryland. But, in truth, there was a win in this. Thanks to Billy and Faye, we attended the best college basketball tournament in America.

A lot has changed in the world of college basketball in the eighteen years since we attended the tournament.

In 2019, Virginia won the mens college basketball championship. Their coach, Tony Bennett, is a class act. Virginia deserved to win the tournament that year. They were truly a united team, and the players never backed down in games when the outcome looked bleak.

I’m sure Billy enjoyed every minute of that championship season.

And I’m certain on Monday, February 7, 2022 from the comfort of courtside seats in heaven, Billy loved Virginia’s upset of seventh ranked Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

Duke’s bluechip, one and done recruits were outplayed by a Virginia team who performed with a committed toughness and heart.

When I think about Billy, I keep coming back to his heart.

He had a heart for people.

Everything he did in life linked his good, kind, and generous heart to people.

I know our son, Andrew, will never forget Billy’s generous heart.

On that cold, snowy January afternoon, I will never forget Billy’s coffin draped in our American flag for his four years of service in the United States Air Force during the Vietnam War.

Nor will I forget the family and friends who filled the parlor space to pay their respects to Billy, Faye, and their daughter, Allison, and her family.

It was an opportunity for our hearts to give back to Billy for all that he meant to us.

Billy, up in the wild blue yonder, I know you are still smiling from that win over Duke.

Enjoy that victory, your heart deserves it.

Body Closed For Broken Heart Repairs

Right now somewhere close by, or far, far away a person is crying.

Soft tears are rolling down a cheek. Hard tears are heaving up a chest. This is no fun.

No matter the type of tears, they are courtesy of a common human ailment—a broken heart.

I remember my first one—Alice Buffalo. I met her at a week long Methodist youth fellowship retreat at North Carolina Wesleyan College in Rocky Mount.

This relationship had no chance. Alice was from Rocky Mount. I lived in Burlington. But, we must have thought anything was possible because I remember writing letters. Of course, there were some faint hearted plans for Alice to come to Burlington for a weekend, but that never happened.

My father knew something about broken hearts. At some point during his World War II service in the Navy, his first marriage ended. Apparently, while he was away, my sweet, kindhearted father was dumped for an officer.
I never talked with him about his broken heart. I sense my mother, his second wife, must have helped his heart to heal.

I don’t think we can be immune from a broken heart. To my knowledge scientists haven’t created a vaccine.

Poets, authors, screenwriters, and songwriters have written quite a bit about broken hearts.

Since November, I’ve been keeping track of friends whose hearts have been broken.

I think the worst type of broken heart is the blindside.

Ending a relationship by blindsiding the unsuspecting receiver is cruel.

With this news, the receiver’s heart and mind accelerate into a mad chaos.

The tears are horrid. Chest convulsions are like seismic shifts. Gasping lungs want to breathe. The heart is thrust into overdrive with an out of control propulsion of beats.

The blindside isn’t pretty. It deeply wounds a heart.

As a father, I know this blindsided heart.

We have a dear friend who survived a challenging divorce. I think our friend is a gentleman. No matter the difficulties created from the divorce, he has put his heart into maintaining his relationships with his daughters.

Despite his efforts, one daughter didn’t see it that way. She would not allow him to attend her wedding and give her away. Our friend’s heart is crushed. Mentally, he keeps questioning his heart, racking his brain asking himself over and over again—what did I do wrong?

There is never a good time for a broken heart, but Christmas is a bad choice.

Another friend was on his way to spend Christmas Day with his grown children, a former wife, and the wife’s family. Yes, I’m sure there would have been some awkward moments, but our friend’s children were really looking forward to seeing him.

As our friend was driving to this gathering, he received a phone call from his very distraught daughter. She was calling to tell him that he had been uninvited to this Christmas Day event. That phone call broke the heart of our friend and his two children.

Shortly after the start of the New Year, I received a call from a former elderly neighbor. I was hesitant to take the call, but my brainless heart talked me into it.

For a variety of reasons, our former neighbor is basically estranged from his children. That was the purpose of his call to complain about his children and everything related to his current living arrangements.

All I could do was listen. His mind, his stubborn heart would not budge on his assessment and opinions. Nothing I could say would persuade him that his brokenhearted children would be willing to talk with his unbending heart.

Warren Zevon was a very gifted songwriter, musician, and singer. You might remember his songs “Werewolves of London” and “Excitable Boy.” Additionally, Mr. Zevon’s songs were recorded by other singers most notably—Linda Ronstadt.

Sadly, Mr. Zevon died in 2003 from cancer. When diagnosed with cancer, he committed to recording a new album titled The Wind. The last song on the album “Keep Me In Your Heart” is a pretty, but sad tune about the end Mr. Zevon is facing.

He ask listeners to “keep me in your heart for a while.”

Amazon’s Alexa sits on the marble top of an old piece of furniture in our kitchen. If I were to shout out, “Alexa how do you repair a broken heart,” I wonder how she might respond?

Sometimes, I catch myself in a daydream going back to life’s bad moments when I know my words, my actions— hurt hearts. If I could only reclaim, retract that meanness.

Doesn’t matter whose heart has been broken, what that person needs to know from me and you comes from Mr. Zevon—“keep me in your heart for a while.”

Maybe that’s how broken hearts are repaired.

We keep those loved ones, those friends in our heart for a while, or for as long as they need us.

Graphic design created by a gifted artist, Elizabeth Loring Pike