Mother’s Day 2021: No idea how you loved me

I remember being told that the delivery was challenging. Despite difficulty, on that June morning nearly 68 years ago, you brought me into the world.

A lot has happened since cancer robbed your last breath on August 31, 1992. Yet, somehow, for 39 years, you took care of me.  This was despite all my imperfections. 

As an infant, at times, I was a light sleeper. 

Also, along the way, I was prone to ear infections.

I was very adept at car sickness. Sunday afternoon rides to Greensboro to visit relatives were often treacherous.

Potty training was a challenge too—I was a bed wetter.

Additionally, as I grew, I was overweight, quite chubby. That meant you had to look extra hard to find jeans/pants labeled husky.

Like all Pikes, I was stubborn. I still recall the cold winter morning when I refused to put on a coat. My father who loved me as much as you, took care of my stubbornness, I deserved it.

For certain, my years in school drove you nuts. Only one year, sixth grade, I made the honor roll and earned perfect attendance. After that year, my brain disappeared.

Sometimes in the summer, during the teenage years, your slug killer, a can of beer would disappear from the refrigerator. Those slugs crawling around in your flowers thanked me.

And, I broke the law too. 

High school homecoming parade fall of 1970, for my friend, John Huffman, I drove a Cadillac convertible down main street in Burlington. John and Maggie Runyon sat on top of the back seat of that caddy waving to the crowd. 

When we drove past you and your co-workers at the office where you worked, I thought your eyes were going to pop out of your head. That’s because you knew I didn’t have a driver’s license.

I was impatient with you after the December 1972 car crash that could have taken your life. 

That concussion and other injuries were slow to heal. I could tell you weren’t the same. I should have been more patient with your healing. I wanted the mother back that I knew before the crash. No excuses, I was simply stupid.

By some miracle, I did graduate from high school. Found one college in America that would accept a fool. 

Married one of the Cloud sisters, and I know you remember your now grown grandchildren. Luckily, Lauren, Andrew, and Elizabeth learned lots of good habits from their mother. 

Now, you have four great grandchildren that I know you would adore. No question, you would spoil them rotten just like my wife, the commander supreme does.

Sometimes, I catch up with my pal, John Huffman. Inevitably in our conversations, one point will be made—how lucky we were to grow up when we did. And we always, always, acknowledge in those talks the key—the love from our parents.

I remember you once telling me, maybe during your last days on earth, “I only asked God for one thing, let me live long enough to see my children grown and successful.”

And while, I don’t know this for a fact, I would assume those words might have been planted by your mother, Margaret Harrod. She was quite a role model.

I keep coming back to this truth—you loved me even when I was at my worst, when disappointment weighed in your heart, and I’m sure you thought many times why did I bring this lug into the world?

And perhaps, that is what makes mothers unique— they find a way to love a son, a daughter— when no else can. 

I have no idea how you loved me. But, I am forever thankful for your courage, your strength to keep loving me.

Today, Mother’s Day, I hope your angel wings take a rest in the wild blue yonder.

 I love you.

My mother and me circa 1954 photo provided by Bill Pike

Hey God, we’re weary down here

It was close to 9:30 on the evening of Saturday, April 17. My phone rang. The name of the senior pastor at our church appeared on the screen.

“Bill, this is Larry, I apologize for calling you late, but I have some bad news,” he said.

There was a slight pause, and then with no hesitation, he stated:  “Jason Coats died this afternoon.”

He continued, “Jason had gone out for a run. He had a heart attack and died. His uncle called to notify me.”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. 

Jason was the chairman of the Trustees for our church. 

Since September, we had talked by phone, exchanged e-mails, participated in Zoom meetings with the Trustees, and during the last few weeks, we had actually met at the church to discuss the work of the Trustees.

Larry asked me to notify the Trustees. As soon as I hung up, I pulled out my computer to send an e-mail. Since it was late, I let the Trustees know they could call me on Sunday morning.

On Sunday morning, the vice-chair of the Trustees called. Catherine, like me, and the rest of our church couldn’t believe the loss. We talked for several minutes. Even though Catherine had worked with Jason since September, she told me because of the pandemic—“I had never met him in person.”

To look at Jason, he was the picture of health. There was no hint of a potential problem.

I thought of all the runs and races I had participated in during my old life. Not once, no matter the distance, weather conditions, or how I felt did I ever think I wouldn’t cross the finish line or complete the workout, and not come back home.

I can only imagine how Jason’s wife and their two children were feeling. Numb, crushed, heartbroken, fearful, and weary come to mind.

On the following Saturday, a private memorial service complete with COVID-19 protocols was held for family and close friends. The service was also live streamed, but that afternoon 46 people were in attendance in our sanctuary to pay their respects.

The service was beautiful from the heartfelt table display of personal items capturing the favorites of Jason’s life, a stunning video of photographs of family and friends, and the tearful tributes to Jason by two close friends and his wife, Valerie. 

Their emotional stories were just what they needed to be—unique to their memories and experiences with Jason. Through their words, it was clear that love impacted everything that Jason did in his 46 years.

In Beth Macy’s book Dopesick, a weary mother who lost her son(Scott) to a drug overdose confronts the young man(Spencer) who provided the lethal drugs. In the federal court sentencing hearing, the mother looks Spencer in the eyes and ask him a series of stinging questions:

“Spencer, will you be there to visit me when I am old and lonely? Neither will Scott.

“Spencer, will you be there to eat dinner with me, mow my lawn, and wish me happy birthday? Neither will Scott.

“Spencer, will you be there to hold my hand when I am sick and dying? Neither will Scott.” (Macy page 115)

No one who spoke at Jason’s funeral pointed a finger of blame at God for this tragic loss.

 But, I imagine, being human like me, they have questions for God. Questions like the grief stricken mother asked in the courtroom.

“God, where were you on that Saturday afternoon, where was Jason’s guardian angel, where was a Good Samaritan, where was your simple saving touch?”

Just in case you haven’t noticed God, losing people like Jason wears on us, it wears us down, it makes us weary.

We have been worn weary by the pandemic, senseless acts of gun violence, our incivility toward each other, our inability to solve the divides that grow between us,  the starving in Yemen, and the civil unrest in Myanmar.

In truth God, no matter where we look in this world, there are challenges, challenges that wear people down— causing them to lose hope.

Isaiah 40 verse 28 states:  “Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom.”

You can tell me to take a hike, but I have to ask God—are you “tired and weary?”

There is no shame in answering truthfully, but I can understand how you might be tired and weary. 

God, you are dealing nonstop with a world in constant turmoil and chaos, a world that seems far removed from you. A world that has lost its bearings, its compass, a world that does not know which way to turn.

And, God, I have to tell you, when we lose a person like Jason— I lose my bearings, my compass. I don’t know which way to turn because I look to you to prevent a loss like this. 

I have bugged you about this before—why, why, why, why?

I do not understand.

How can an evil plotting terrorist continue to live, and a church loving, God fearing gentleman like Jason lose his life.

Yes, I know, I’m being a pain.

 But, I worry about you being tired and weary—why?

 Well, quite simply, I sense that you are tired and weary.

And that’s because at this very moment, I believe many people are tired and weary too.

At my mother’s funeral, one of the pastors read these words from Isaiah 40:

“He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength.They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.”

God, that weariness out there touches us all. And as discouraged as I sometimes feel, I’m going to hang on to one word in that scripture—hope.

I have always liked the words of screenwriter, Frank Darabont, from the movie, The Shawshank Redemption

In the letter that Andy wrote to his friend, Red, he said: “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best thing, and no good thing ever dies.”

With much sadness in our hearts, everyday, we lose good people like Jason Coats. 

I will never understand those losses. 

But, I believe the challenge after a loss is to inch forward. To inch forward, we must carry with us Jason’s love, his goodness, his passion. Those good, essential qualities can’t die.

And I am sure that even though God will not admit that he is tired and weary, I can’t let God’s goodness, his hope, his strength die in me too.

Yes, I am weary, but I will find renewal in hope, and I pray that somehow we will all find that hope too.

That hope is the only way.

Rest in peace Jason, and God hold his family.

A pretty spring afternoon, photo taken in Summerfield, North Carolina on the afternoon of Saturday, April 17 by Bill Pike

The Beer Whiner: Are you kidding me craft brewers? Seltzers and low calorie beers!

Back on April 6, 2021, the Brewers Association released their annual report assessing  how craft brewers fared in 2020 a year disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Not surprisingly, volume share, retail dollar value, barrels produced, brewing jobs, and volume change were all down.

 Also noted in the report is that draught beer sales fell 40%. This is a direct impact of the pandemic shutting down bars, restaurants, and tasting rooms. But, the article also notes that the pandemic forced craft brewers to put on their thinking caps to find new and different ways to reach consumers. 

Interestingly, in 2020, new openings of craft breweries outpaced closings. Although a challenging year to launch a new brewery,  there were 716 openings and 346 closings. I am certain there is lots of pain in those closings, and while I am no expert, I would assume that the fallout from the pandemic will bring more closings in 2021.

When I check out the display cases in local grocery stores, I am amazed at the explosion of seltzers. I am not a seltzer drinker, but everyone seems to be pursuing that market share. This includes the big box brewers and craft brewers of all sizes. The upsurge in seltzers, parallels a decline in beer sales, and this makes  me wonder what this shift means for producers of ciders?

If you doubt seltzers are hot, in a press release on February 5, 2021, Anheuser-Busch is investing $1 billion to modernize their plants, and $50 million will go to increase their ability to brew seltzers. Once again, this investment in seltzers can be linked to a decline in beer sales.

Also, I note in those display cases something I never thought I would see—craft brewers offering low calorie beers. A craft brewer brewing and selling a light beer seems so counterintuitive to one of  their original passions— not to be like the big box brewers.

While I am disappointed that craft brewers are offering seltzers and low calorie beers, I recognize that these moves are about cash flow and in some instances survival.

And, in thinking about survival, I believe we must ask how many breweries can a community support?

 Over the last few years in my community, Richmond, Virginia breweries have continued to open. They have opened at such a pace that I have not been able to visit these newbies. I often wonder if some might close before I have a chance for a visit. 

And, yet, some experts believe that over saturation isn’t a problem. I wonder what the owners of a failed brewery might say to that reasoning? 

For many years, Anchor Brewing in San Francisco has been a favorite of mine. I still remember my first Anchor Steam Beer from a trip to California in the summer of 1980. When our oldest daughter lived in Chicago, I could always find some different Anchor beers to sample that were not available in Virginia.

But, I was saddened when in August of 2017 Anchor was purchased by the giant Japanese brewer Sapporo. Now, I’m wounded a bit more with the January 26, 2021 announcement that all of the iconic Anchor labels are going away. New labels, new graphics will now grace bottles, cans, and packaging. 

Anchor has been around for 125 years, tweaking packaging is one thing, I just hope they don’t tweak the beer recipes. This new packaging is all about marketing. The goal is to grab the attention of new beer drinkers in a different way from the previous iconic Anchor labels.  

But also buried in this flurry of activity are several new beers including “Little Weekend” —Anchor’s move into low calorie beers. Again something I never expected to see, and a beer that I  whiningly never plan to try.

And while on the topic of whining, I’ll come back to one of my pet peeves about craft brewers—the pricing of their products.

Recently, I was surveying the beer, cider, and seltzer displays inside the coolers in one of our local grocery stores. In case you haven’t noticed, most craft brewers have shifted away from single bomber bottles that offered 16 or more ounces of beer. 

Those bomber bottles have been converted into 4 packs of cans that hold 16 ounces of beer a piece. I’m making the assumption that aluminum cans are more cost friendly to the brewer than the bomber bottles, plus they fit better on a display shelf.

I took note of four displays of 16 ounce cans by four different brewers. Three of the brewers were located here in Richmond, and one was an import. The pricing range was as follows:  $5.99, $9.99, $12.99, and $13.99.

From those four beers, the average purchaser of beer might be surprised that the $5.99  beer came from Germany, the well known Bitburger Premium Pilsner.

That same average consumer might be astonished that the higher priced beers are brewed in their own backyard. It is an easy drive in Richmond to any of the three breweries. 

Again, my usual whining, this pricing makes no sense to me. 

How can a beer brewed in Germany cost less than beers brewed in my own city? I know the craft brewer pushbacks—quality of ingredients, labor intensive, and the need for clever branding/advertising to sell the beer in an over saturated market.

Not that I want to support the German brewery, but simple math could make the choice easy for me. There is an eight dollar difference between the cheapest and the most expensive four pack.

Another interesting angle here is that the three local beers are all distributed by the local Anheuser-Busch distributor. And to add to this pricing factor, on this afternoon, there were only two four packs of the Bitburger left in the cooler, and the other three beers were in full supply. I wonder why, could it be pricing?

But, there are more questions to be asked about that tier of pricing. What is taken into consideration as the brewer and distributor wrestle with setting a price for a four pack of 16 ounce cans? Does the retailer have any say in making these decisions? More importantly, does the brewer, distributor, or retailer care what the consumer thinks about pricing?

I guess craft brewers know they can’t offer a $5.99 four pack of 16 ounce beers, and stay in business. So, they focus their energy on convincing a distributor and retailers that the quality of their local brewed beer is going to generate sells.

This possibly creates a purchasing dilemma for the consumer. The buyer wants to support local brewers, but the obvious difference in cost might eliminate any consideration to purchase a local beer. 

I wonder if craft brewers understand this predicament? What might craft brewers learn by walking into a local grocery store to the beer aisle?

 My hunch is craft brewers probably don’t think a lot about penny pinching beer consumers. Their data and demographics are linked to purchasers who don’t blink at a $13.99 price for a four pack. Plus, experience tells the craft brewers that some consumers will pay even more for a unique  beer that is establishing a legacy among beer drinkers.

But, as craft brewers continue to steer into the future of the post-pandemic is a break in pricing something they should weigh more carefully?  If a 2021 Brewers Association annual report continues to show a decline in the critical reporting categories, how will craft brewers respond, will an adjustment in pricing be considered?

As much as I whine about the pricing of craft beers, I still hold these brewers in high regard.

Back in April on a cool, but pretty Sunday afternoon, my wife, youngest daughter, and I drove to Ashland, Virginia to the Origin Beer Lab. This tiny brewery is an off-shoot of Center of the Universe, another Ashland based brewery. The concept behind the Origin Beer Lab is this brewery gives the Center of the Universe brewers a chance to experiment with different beer recipes and styles on a smaller scale.

Ashland is a postcard town. Its heart is split with an active railroad track in the center of the business district. Attractive storefronts, the campus of Randolph Macon College, and pretty restored homes are all a part of the charm.

At the Origin Beer Lab, visitors have three seating options— out front to catch the rumble of passing trains, a cozy inside, or a sunny back patio. Even with COVID-19 protocols in place, the gentle and knowledgeable staff was very hospitable as we found seats on the patio.

But there was an indication that someone at Origin or Center of the Universe had been thinking about pricing. On Sunday afternoons, all growler fills are half-price.

And in all my whining about beer, that’s all I’m asking: what will it take for the owners of craft breweries  to re-evaluate how they price their well made beers?

If sales and market shares continue to fall, will craft brewers still be able to command higher prices for their products?

That is a tough question to answer, and perhaps the key to answering that question might just be in the taste buds of consumers.

Will consumers be loyal to traditional passions of crafter brewers, or will consumers continue to push brewers into non-traditional areas to soothe their fickle palates?

And, I can’t forget my friends at Anchor Brewing. It will interesting to see if sales increase with a new labeling profile and new beer offerings. I just hope they don’t forget the strength of their brewing roots.

As we move further into 2021, I suspect we will learn more about beer consumers their tastes and their wallets.  Hopefully, we are on the cusp of an improving post-pandemic environment for craft brewers. 

I say this even though I still find it hard to believe that craft brewers are brewing low calorie beers and seltzers.

A pint glass of Galileo Aged Foeder Bohemian Style Pilsner from Bench Top Brewing Norfolk, Virginia photo by Bill Pike

That Voice In Your Vision

When I was a kid, I enjoyed tinkering with tinker toys. As a rapidly aging, grumpy geezer, I enjoy a different type of tinkering—tinkering with words.

One of the most challenging pieces of writing is what I call “tired eyes.” Tired eyes happen after a piece has been written. Now, I have the challenge of proofing the piece to find errors. My best editing trick is reading the piece out loud, and even that isn’t full proof.

The most frustrating misses are the ones found after a piece has been posted to my blog. For whatever reason, my tired eyes didn’t catch an error, and that drives me nuts. 

I’ve had the privilege of writing three books for children. In two of our books, we found overlooked errors after publication. This was despite countless re-readings, and using non-tired eyes for proofing. I couldn’t believe it. With the third book, we pledged not to send the galley proof back to the printer until we were absolutely sure we had the manuscript perfect.

Tired eyes can impact life too.

Our eyes can become weary as they are too willing to accept the errors of life in front us. We move on without challenging.

This is dangerous. Why is this dangerous?

Well, the risk in the moving on is that we stop listening to the voice in our vision. 

You know, Bill, I have always felt you were a bit wacky, and I think you just confirmed that for me—there is no voice in my vision.

Sorry, but I beg to differ—there is a voice in your vision. 

After your eyes scan in something disturbing, that hushed librarian voice says to you, “I can’t believe this is happening, someone needs to speak out about this situation.” That’s the voice in your vision.

It is a quiet, squeaky, nudging whisper. This voice wants to prod you, me, we, us forward, but we often close our ears.

Ted Williams was one of the best hitters in baseball. He worked. He learned. He studied his positioning and swing in the batter’s box. He intentionally observed the movements and habits of opposing pitchers. And, Mr. Williams was blessed with a gift— extraordinary vision.

According to USA Today’s publication Baseball Weekly, Mr. Williams did not realize how blessed his eyes were until he signed up to serve in World War II. In his medical examination for admission, Mr. Williams learned his vision was 20/10. That vision led, Mr. Williams to become a Marine Corps fighter pilot. 

David Halberstam’s book Summer of ’49 takes a look at the baseball pennant race that season between the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox.

He describes a day when Mr. Williams of the Red Sox strikes out. Williams comes back to the dugout complaining about striking out. Thinking out loud, Williams believes he was called out on strikes because home plate was out of line. His teammates gave him grief about his theory.

But, before the game the next day, the Red Sox manager went out to measure the placement of home plate. And he found, that Ted William’s assertion was correct—home plate was out of line.

Ted Williams followed that voice in his vision. He trusted his instincts. He spoke out. His speaking out brought about a change. 

Right now, America needs the voices in our vision. We are still a divided country. 

Our wounds for lots of different reasons are deep. These wounds are not healing.

 Why is that?

 Are we incapable of healing?

 Have we lost the capacity to see what is so obvious?

If Ted Williams through his vision could theorize that home plate was out of line, why can’t we see how dangerous our division is to our country?

Singer songwriter, Jackson Browne, has written many thought provoking songs. His first hit, “Doctor My Eyes,” has always intrigued me. This one verse really makes me think:

“Doctor, my eyes, tell me what you see. I hear their cries,

just say if it’s too late for me.”

For a long, long, long time these cries of division have been present. We can no longer ignore them.

If we continue to ignore this division, then it is going to be too late for America. We can’t let this happen, we must overcome this tiredness in our eyes. 

The silent voices in our vision need to speak out with helpful, healing, hearts. 

Listen you, me, we, us—don’t let it be too late.

Note from the author: Thanks to my sister, Lisa Henry, for the reminder about “Doctor My Eyes.”

Home plate at the University of Richmond’s baseball field, photo by Bill Pike

“Does this story have a point?”

On the afternoon of Friday, April 9, I was in a mechanical closet in the Preschool wing of our church building. 

Aside from electrical panels, the three mechanical closets each house two cooling units. I was attempting to spruce up these small closets by removing useless clutter, vacuuming, and giving the old concrete floors a quick mopping.

At some point, our office administrator, Paula, tracked me down. A young man was in the church office, and he was requesting financial assistance. 

I dropped what I was doing, and listened to Paula’s initial information.

From there, I walked to the church office and introduced myself to Albert.

His short-sleeve shirt revealed an abundance of tattoos. Albert was wearing shorts, and he quickly explained his reason for being in Richmond. 

Not sure if this took place today or the previous day, but Albert had visited Dr. Le at VCU Hospital. Albert showed me his legs and referenced previous skin grafts from an encounter with burning gasoline. 

Periodically, Albert checks in with Dr. Le to make sure the skin grafts are healing properly. To tell you the truth, I saw nothing unusual about his legs. But, my eyes are old, and they have no expertise with skin grafts.

Then Albert explained a couple of mechanical challenges with his car. These unexpected repairs had reduced whatever funds Albert had for getting back to Jacksonville, Florida. He asked for snacks and gasoline money.

I listened, and then asked him to sit tight. Down in the Trinity Hall kitchen pantry were an assortment of prepackaged snacks and some bottled water. I found a small box and loaded it up.

When I returned to the church office, there was no Albert waiting for me. Paula told me he was in the restroom. Also, Paula shared she had given Albert a couple of face masks made by our Stitchers. He had indicated to Paula that their dogs had been nibbling on their spare masks.

A few minutes later, Albert returned, and I handed him the box of snacks and water. He seemed very appreciative.

We walked out into the lobby of the entrance to the office, and I asked Albert—“how did you end up at our church?”

Albert replied he was simply looking for a church that was open.

I said to him, “I’m not trying to be difficult, but in the past, we’ve had people stop here and at the other three churches along Forest Avenue. At each church, the people made the same request for assistance.”

Albert appeared a bit befuddled with my story telling, but he assured me this wasn’t his intent.

I asked Albert to return to his car and to follow me in the church pickup truck to the neighborhood Mobil station three short blocks away. There we would fill up his car.

On Rock Creek Road, Albert pulled in behind the pick up truck. Without interruption, we turned left on to Forest Avenue.

At the station, he lined up with a pump, and with my credit card, we had approval to start pumping gas. While the gas was pumping, the lady he was traveling with came out of the car. Albert encouraged her to show me her identification, but I declined the offer.

There were two good sized dogs in the back seat. Albert’s lady friend was very affectionate toward them. Soon, the pump stopped. The tank was full.

Albert thanked me and blessed me, and he commented, “Now, we can head out to the highway.”

They pulled back out on to Forest Avenue. He made a right turn at the stoplight in front of the shopping center, and they were gone.

On the drive back to the church, my old brain was full of questions. 

Had I been snookered again?

Do people looking for assistance network with each other? Hey, that old guy over at Trinity Methodist has a soft heart, you can get a tank of gas and maybe some snacks off of him.

Albert and his lady friend gave the appearance that they had lived hard or that life had been hard on them. Was my impression wrong?

I wondered about the car—an old Saturn SUV, with 30 day Virginia license plates. 

I continued to ask myself questions—is it possible to trust the story of a stranger, or will skepticism dominate my thinking?

I did confirm that a Dr. Le does work at VCU, and he is a specialist in working with burn patients. That gave me a bit of optimism, but I still had questions.

I admire the screenplay and the actresses and actors who portray the characters in the movie Steel Magnolias. This film is based on Robert Harling’s play. Ouiser Boudreaux’s character played by Shirley MacLaine is real gem.

In one front porch scene, her friends are listening in as Shelby politely informs Ouiser about meeting a man that Ouiser dated before her two failed marriages. As Ouiser listens to Shelby’s story about this man, Owen, she respond’s with a very curt and direct question to Shelby’s account—“Does this story have a point?”

Right now, I’m asking that same question to myself. Does my story about Albert, his lady friend, the two dogs, and the request for assistance  have a point?

Maybe.

When my time comes to make the jump up to the blue yonder, I don’t expect to make the cut. But, if my luck changes, I suspect I will ask God a question about Albert.

“Hey God, do you remember that April afternoon when Albert stopped by Trinity looking for some help?” I’ll ask.

And God will look over at one of his angels and ask, “Do we have a file on Albert from Jacksonville?”

In a few seconds, the angel will answer, “That file is classified.”

I’ll look back at God, and I’ll say, “So much for transparency up here in heaven.”

God will chuckle and reply, “William, your still a wise guy.”

And he will continue, “In the Bible, at least nine times, these words are written—“love your neighbor as yourself.’’ On that April afternoon did you show love to the stranger, your brother, your neighbor, Albert?”

I will respond, “Yes, God, I did, but in all truthfulness, there was an abundance of distrust pinging in my brain the whole time.”

“So you distrusted Albert’s story, but Albert trusted that a church might be able to help him. I wonder why Albert had that trust?” God asked.

Silence overtakes me. Once again, God has me boxed in a corner. I’m fumbling for a response.

My mind was tempting me to say, “I’ll bet the answer is in that classified file,” but I didn’t.

Finally, I responded, “So, even though I distrusted Albert’s story, I still have an obligation to find a way to help him. And God, you are grounding your reasoning in an assumption that somewhere along the way, rightly or wrongly, Albert learned that churches have the capacity to help those in need. Plus, your nine scripture citations really leave me with no options.”

So to answer Ouiser’s question and my question too, this story does have a point—“love your neighbor as yourself.”

And God said, “William, even when you doubt the stranger’s story, the point of the scripture  is to trust those five words.”

Mechanical closet Trinity UMC photo Bill Pike

The Kinks: “Days”

Perhaps, you remember The Kinks. 

They were one of many British bands whose music crossed the Atlantic after the Beatles invasion.

For the Kinks, their first blast of sound through AM transistor radios in America came from “You Really Got Me.” For two minutes and 14 seconds, the Kinks rocked their way into a top ten hit.

The Kinks hailed from north London, Muswell Hill, and the band was a quartet— with brothers Ray and Dave Davies on guitars, Pete Quaife on bass, and drummer Mick Avory.

Unfortunately for the Kinks, in 1965, they suffered set back. 

At the height of the British invasion, the American Federation of Musicians banned the Kinks from touring in America for four years. An assortment of reasons have been attributed to the ban, but that absence essentially stopped the early momentum the Kinks had in America. 

Despite the banishment, songs like—“All Day and All of the Night,” “Tired of Waiting,” “Set Me Free,” “Dedicated Follower of Fashion,” and “A Well-Respected Man” charted in America.

And the Kinks were not immune from the pressures of the music industry. In 1966, Ray Davies who wrote most of the Kinks’ songs suffered a breakdown. 

Recording companies want hit records. To get hit records, songwriters are constantly writing, and if you create a hit, a band must tour to promote that hit, and then toss in legal hassles over contracts and publishing royalties, and Davies had the perfect formula for a crash.

And yet, despite these setbacks, Ray Davies and the Kinks were survivors.

I’ll be honest with you, I only own two Kinks’ albums: Lola Versus Powerman(1970) and Muswell Hillbillies(1971).

 And to carry that truthfulness a bit further, if I was washed ashore on a remote isle, I would want those two albums with me. Gradually, Ray Davies changed the direction of his songwriting. Mr. Davies wrote about life, life that was all around him, and quite a bit of that writing captured his life in Britain.

My childhood pal, Joe Vanderford, who surprisingly still claims me as a friend, recently sent me a documentary to view about the Kinks 1968 album The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society. I know very little about that release, except that Ray Davies called it—“the most successful ever flop.”

This album was for Ray Davies and the Kinks— what Pet Sounds was for the Beach Boys,and Sgt. Pepper to the Beatles. The record sold miserably, but critics gave the album high marks, and today its original slow start in sales has been forgiven.

But when Joe sent me the documentary, my interest was rekindled in the Kinks, and I discovered the song “Days.” This song was released as a single in 1968. But, it was not included on The Village Green Preservation Society, and to my old ears I don’t think I have heard such a pretty, heartfelt song about loss.

I have no idea if Ray Davies is a religious or spiritual man, but the lyrics remind me of gentle words from the Bible. Here is a sample:

“Thank you for the days, those endless days, those sacred days you gave me. I’m thinking of the days, I won’t forget a single day, believe me. I bless the light, I bless the light that lights on you, believe me. And though you’re gone, you’re with me every single day, believe me.” Written by Ray Davies/DavRay Music Ltd.

As sure as words are clicking out on this keyboard, you can wager your last penny at this very moment, someone is experiencing a loss. 

A loss never leaves a person. The worst losses are the ones that are senseless and tragic, the ones that happen too frequently in America from a trigger being pulled.  

Recently, in the Richmond area a 13 year old girl, two 17 year old males, and an outstanding 20 year old student at Virginia Commonwealth University were senselessly, tragically shot and killed. 

There is no thankfulness in mindless days like this.

Now, all that happens is a mother, a father, a brother, a sister, a grandmother, a grandfather, aunts, uncles, cousins, neighbors, and friends ask why—why did this happen to me and my family?

“Those endless days, those sacred days” for the families are gone, gone forever. Now, a wretched weariness hovers over them, and that weariness, that loss will never leave their souls, their minds, or their struggles to reset their lives.

Ironically, in 2004 Ray Davies, was shot in New Orleans as he was walking down a street with a lady friend. Two thieves grabbed his friend’s purse. Davies chased them, one of the thieves turned around and shot him in the thigh. Mr. Davies was lucky—he recovered.

On Friday, April 9, I spoke with my friend Joe by phone. He was in New York City. Friday was a prep day for the NBA game he would be covering between the Lakers and the Nets on Saturday. Joe is a walking book of stories from his career as a cameraman covering athletic events around the world.

But the start of our conversation on Friday morning was about loss—the fragility of life. During the last couple of months, Joe has lost two dear friends—one a distinguished jazz pianist, and the other, a mentor in helping Joe learn about directing and production work for PBS programming based out of Chapel Hill.

Joe is a deeply reflective and insightful person. I could hear his heart choosing his words as he spoke of these soul robbing losses. And Joe, also cited the uncertainty of life, how we just never know when our time is up.

But, I also know in reflection when Joe thinks about losing his two loyal friends, he might just grab hold of Ray Davies’ words: “and though your gone, you’re with me every single day, believe me.”

Sometimes, and I have no explanation, tears well up in my eyes when I listen to a song. Not sure if it is the instruments played, the lyrics, or the passion of the singer/s, but something hits my heart, and my tear ducts open.

Several times during the last few weeks, I watched a live performance from the 2010 Glastonbury Festival of Ray Davies performing “Days” with a band and a full chorus. For some reason as I watched this performance, my eyes became moist.

Today, in your neighborhood, the place where you work, in a church, in a park, in a grocery store parking lot, a person is going to have a flashback over the loss of a loved one. And though they attempt to be strong, they can’t hold back the tears nor the deep gasps for air in their unsteady chests.

Who knows you, me, we, us might be the first person who encounters this broken hearted soul after the cry. 

If that happens, be the light for this person with all the gentle passion from which Ray Davies wrote and sang:  “I bless the light, I bless the light that lights on you, believe me.”

And remember Matthew 5:16:  “let your light shine before others.” 

And one more remember, some day you might be the person who needs that light.

Thanks for the read, have a quiet day, Bill

Author’s note:  A Wikipedia article about the Kinks was researched for this piece.

The Kinks circa 1968 Billboard magazine

quiet battles

Around midday on Tuesday, March 23, our friend came into the church office. He stopped by to update us on his quiet battle. 

With lots of deep thinking, anguish, and prayer, his best friend, his wife, is now living in a facility to help manage her memory loss. Even though this was the right decision, I know our friend’s heart is crushed.

A couple of months ago, a  dear friend who had retired to Arkansas called me. My friend faced a quiet battle too. 

She described her courtroom appearance before a judge to have her daughter committed. All other options in trying to help the daughter manage her mental health had failed. I could hear the hurt in her heart.

Somewhere today in America, a student will confront a quiet battle— a dangerous environment at home. With the student’s heart pounding, words will pour out to a school counselor.

Quiet battles are all around us. 

We all have them. 

There is no immunity.

The toughest of those quiet battles are the ones that keep overloading the wiring inside a person. Eventually, the wiring snaps.  When wiring snaps, all rational thinking is gone, there is no turning back, and in a blink 18 people in Atlanta and Boulder are senselessly killed.

We blink. 

We think another foolish tragedy. 

We move on in our numbness. 

These tragedies are soon to be forgotten.

That is until the next quiet battle snaps and more lives are altered forever.

When are we going to wake up?

The real question is do we want to wake up and change?

Frankly, I’m not sure we want to wake up and change. 

Any number of statistical studies indicate that the number of firearms owned in the United States is more than our population.

Try as we might, I’m not sure we can legislate our way out of this mess. We already have multiple federal, state, and local laws about firearms.

I’m no Einstein, but it appears to me that we need to legislate our  minds, our hearts, our souls.

How did we become so brazen with our thinking to believe that pulling a trigger can solve all our problems?

What inside that trigger puller made that person believe— this is my chance, I’ll show them, I’ll get even, no more pushing me around, I’ve had enough.

Some people find reasonable ways to resolve these internal conflicts.

For others, the internal raging continues. The overloaded wiring circuits continue to push their irrational thinking. When that circuit breaker trips for this person, there is no turning back.

We talk a lot about mental health in our country. Our tax dollars are often spent on senseless pursuits. 

What might happen if we stop talking about mental health and pursue reinvesting and improving our mental health infrastructure and services? 

Don’t people in quiet battles deserve the opportunity to address their mental health?

America, aren’t we better than this? 

Don’t we respect and value the fragility of life?

Aren’t we tired of these ridiculous headlines? 

Shouldn’t we be disgusted and ready to say enough?

I have seen first hand the impact of a cherished love one being killed from the firing of a gun.

From what I have seen for the family who experienced this loss— the grieving has not stopped, sleep is unsettled, the mind still questions, the heart is broken, and the soul is empty forever.

America our quiet voices need to be heard.

At this very moment, someone’s quiet battle has snapped.

The predictable, repetitive headline will reappear—Another Senseless Tragedy For America.

That headline should repulse our hearts.

Why doesn’t it?

A good place for quiet reflection Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens in Henrico County, Virginia photo by Bill Pike 4/10/21

Hey God, thanks for the clunk

Singer-songwriter, John Phillips, penned these heartfelt words in his famous song about Monday—“Monday, Monday, can’t trust that day.”

Mr. Phillips’ lyrics captured the way Monday, March 8 started out for me.

A little after 7 a.m. I received a phone call from Kim, one of our church staff members. Kim was reporting to me that the fire alarm panel for the building was beeping. 

Beeping sounds from a fire panel are annoying. This is because the sound is high pitched and ear piercing. But, what was even more irritating is that despite Kim hitting all the right prompts to silence the alarm, the panel was not cooperating.

I told Kim I would be at church as soon as I cleared the frost off of my car windshield.

When I entered the hallway by the office, I could hearing the panel’s beep. At the panel, the beep was inconsistent. It would loudly beep for several seconds, and then there was silence. But, that pause was short lived.

I followed the same prompts for silencing the beep that Kim had, and I too had no luck. Thankfully, the panel was not reporting any actual alarms. So, I put in a call for service to the company who we contract with to silence an unhappy panel.

After verifying that she was talking with an authorized idiot, this nice representative from the panel maker, walked me through some different prompts to mute the beep. Like a stubborn child rebelling against a parent, the beep wasn’t cooperating.

I asked if we could take the system off line until a technician could arrive, but that option would not bring quietness. So, a ticket was written for a technician to battle the panel. I thanked the representative for her help, and let her move on to another beeping customer.

I thought to myself, no duct tape application here, but maybe I should go to the tool shed and grab the sledge hammer. I’ll bet that will silence the uncooperative beeping panel. But, the rational part of my brain talked me out of that option.

However, my internal voice told me I should check the mechanical rooms and the room that houses the sprinkler system controls. I let Kim know that a technician for the panel had been requested, and I told her I was going to make sure the mechanical rooms were ok.

In the Trinity Hall mechanical room, all appeared fine until I looked a little closer. I saw two puddling streams of water going in different directions. My eyes scanned further to confirm that the 65 gallon hot water heater was leaking. 

Not seeing any obvious leaks at any connections, I went to my knees and looked under the tank. There I saw the dripping. Not thinking about where I was, I rose quickly pivoted around, took a couple of steps, and clunk. The top of my head collided with the bottom of a low hanging relief valve.

At that very moment, God was not pleased with my choice of words.

Immediately,  alarms were beeping in heaven—we have a head clunk language violation transmitting from 903 Forest Avenue.  It is a name in vain breech. This is lifetime name in vain breech 6,771 for William Avery Pike, Jr. 

The non-Sunday school language continued as I exited the mechanical room. I could sense a warm oozing on the top of my head. I hustled back to the church office, grabbed some paper towels, and put slight pressure on the point of the collision.

Kim took a look at the cut, and confirmed it wasn’t deep enough to merit a trip to the emergency room. With the bleeding under control, I walked toward the Eaton Hall mechanical room. More good news awaited me there as I noted the steam boiler for the Sanctuary was in alarm. 

I told myself to check it later, and I headed toward the control room for the sprinkler system in the basement of the Preschool. Thankfully, this system was working properly.

“Monday, Monday, can’t trust that day.”

At this point, I headed home to cleanup the valve cut and to eat breakfast. 

Back at church, we loaded the pickup truck from Friday’s food collection to deliver to the Welborne food pantry.

Good news, the fire panel technician had arrived. He found a circuit that had decided to misbehave. The technician was working his magic to bring the rebellious circuit back on line.

At some point in the early afternoon, a loud pop was heard coming from the copying room. With the pop, we lost internet service to our building. Kim put in a call to the company who takes care of our technology.

When their technician arrived, he discovered the backup battery system for the server had decide to croak. The technician was able to reroute some power connections to the server, and in a few sluggish seconds the internet service returned to the building.

“Monday, Monday, can’t trust that day.”

I spent the remainder of my afternoon prepping for the monthly Trustees’ meeting at 5:30. Since the arrival of our pal the pandemic, the Trustees have been meeting via Zoom. 

By 7, the Trustees meeting had come to a conclusion. The swirl of topics, discussions, and decisions had my clunked old noggin even more— it was running on empty.

I was ready to go home.

“Monday, Monday, can’t trust that day.”

Monday gets a bad rap. Things can go wrong on any day of the week.

A beeping panel, a leaking hot water heater, a head clunk, a boiler in alarm, and a backup battery expiring are nothing compared to what some people experience during the course of a day.

Right now, there is a person out there beeping just like that fire alarm panel.

That human being is beeping because their internal circuits are on overload.

Every problem in that old church building today had a solution—the help from another human being.

Sometimes, God clunks our noggins to help us to see and understand—this world is still upside down. As badly as we want it, normal is still a long way off.

Getting to normal depends on us. It means taking God’s clunks, his reminders, as a way to find those people in our community who are beeping. 

God needs us to work cooperatively, he needs us to work smarter, he needs us to help those who are beeping. 

Be ready, the next God clunk might be for you.

My friend the relief valve Photo by Bill Pike

God doesn’t like us

A little after 5:30 on March 28, Palm Sunday, I arrived at Trinity United Methodist Church. This morning at 9 we were holding our first outdoor worship service since the pandemic slammed our doors shut.

Lots of planning, thinking, teamwork, and communication had gone into the logistics for this service. There was an edge of nervousness among the staff. And of course for outdoor events, weather conditions are the pivot point.

This morning, I had some basic early staging that needed to be done. Placement of traffic cones, tables for checking in the congregation, that included COVID-19 protocols, and chalking the designated parking spaces/pods where families would gather during the service.

Our communication specialist had worked hard to make the technology easy for our congregation to reserve a pod. If needed, this also included a simple step for cancelling the reservation.

The staging was going well. I even chatted with a couple of early morning walkers from the neighborhood. They were curious about why an ancient geezer was rambling around in a parking lot before sunrise.

My old brain kept running through my checklist—tent, trash bags, chalk, podium, palm crosses, hand truck, extension cords,  and raindrops.

Yes, a few raindrops fell just before I started chalking the pods. But, as I finished the chalking, I heard something I didn’t want to hear—the rumble of thunder.

I checked the National Weather Service’s radar site, and immediately texted our son, the weather expert in our family.

Shortly, he texted back. A cell of heavy rain was tracking toward the church. But, there was good news, once this cell passed we looked to be rain free.

I called our senior pastor. We agreed to keep moving forward. I let our communication specialist know that we were still holding the service.

The clock was ticking, and the most critical piece of setting up was still to be completed—the sound system. When our modern worship leader and his wife arrived, the rain was coming down steadily. Inside, we did some staging of equipment and waited.

I rechecked with our son. He told me the cell had grown, intensified. But, he still believed that we could make it—I wasn’t so sure.

The rain was now coming down in buckets. Sharp lightning flashed through the windows in the Welcome Center where I waited. I put in a second call to our senior pastor. When he answered I told him—“I don’t think God likes us.” He laughed, and probably because of some heavenly connection, the service was still a go.

Gradually, the rain stopped. In an adrenaline fed frenzy, check-in tables were dried, pods re-chalked, a tent and sound system were set up, and we started.

The service worked out.  Maybe God does like us. 

 But, there are times I wonder how he could like us at all? What must he think as he looks down upon us?

We are a mess. Part of me believes the world has always been a wreck. In some ways, Holy Week confirms this. 

I will confess I don’t know that I fully understand the logic of God’s thinking. Sacrificing his son is a tough sell for me. Especially, when I know how hard his son worked to teach us about love.

I’ll leave Holy Week to the theologians and preachers to debate.

And perhaps, this is part of my struggle with Easter. I hold out every Easter for its hope. It is the same hope that I hold out for at Christmas too. 

 Hope that maybe, just maybe, we will wake up, and realize—you, me, we, us, America, the world, we can’t keep living this way.

This senseless disrespect and loss of human life is all around us. The tragic pain of these losses crushes the hearts of families everyday.

We can’t continue to blink and be numb to these foolish losses. 

Yes, I’m pretty sure at times God doesn’t like us.

But deep inside God’s heart, he too holds out for hope. 

Hope that somehow, someway, we will wake up, and collectively say enough.

And when we finally say enough, maybe then we will be ready to reteach, retool our hearts to love.

One of my favorite songwriters is a Methodist minister, Drew Willson. 

His song, “But We Could Love” acknowledges our differences, but offers a solution:

   “From the ground of all our being

    to the fabric up above, we cannot think alike,

    no, we cannot think alike, but we could love,

    we could love.”

Yes, we could love.

We’ve known about love for a long time.

No more stalling.

The time is now. 

We should love.

Trinity UMC Richmond, Virginia Easter 2020 photo by Bill Pike

College basketball=madness for coaches

In 1891, Dr. James Naismith invented basketball. He had been give an assignment at Springfield College in Massachusetts to create an indoor sport for the season of winter.

Much like the Wright Brothers with their airplane, I suspect Dr. Naismith would be amazed to see how his game has evolved.

Basketball is played around the world—indoors, outdoors— in backyards, playgrounds, parks, gymnasiums, and oversized arenas.

Children start playing at an early age. A few will develop the skills needed to play collegiately and professionally.

Forever locked in my brain is that spring afternoon when two of my fourth grade classmates, Johnny Huffman and Tommy Hinson, introduced me to basketball. 

Since that introduction, I have been hooked, a fan— especially for the college game.

I have attended games in person and watched many on television. Sometimes, when watching a game on television, my wife has issued me a technical foul and banned me from the den. She had just cause. A grown man should not be shouting unflattering words at a unresponsive television when his team is losing.

We all know about the madness created in March with the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

But, there are other levels of madness that college basketball creates too.

The pursuit to win pushes coaches and their staffs to travel all over the world to recruit and sign the best players. Sometimes, recruiting becomes mired in broken promises, shady transactions, and investigations that ruin lives.

Coaching a men’s college basketball team is dangerous work. A coach puts his livelihood in the hands of 17, 18, and 19 year old college students to win games. Even if a coach compiles a winning record during his tenure, those wins might not satisfy impatient alumni. 

If a coach can’t consistently guide his teams into the madness of the NCAA tournament to pursue winning the national championship, his job might be in jeopardy. Often, that’s when alumni become agitated and start the drumroll of grumbling to athletic directors.

Every March there is a carousel of coaches who are fired or whose contracts are bought out. Just ask Steve Wojciechowski and Archie Miller who were this season head coaches at Marquette and Indiana.

In seven years at Marquette and four years at Indiana the teams of both coaches compiled winning records. Both schools have a rich history of college basketball success. 

In that history each school has won the national championship and competed in the  NCAA tournament multiple times. But neither Wojciechowski or Miller in their tenure was able to consistently bring their teams into the NCAA tournament to pursue the national championship.

Wojciechowski was fired, and Archie Miller on paper became a millionaire.

Grumpy alumni at Indiana stroked checks in the amount of $10.3 million so that the athletic director could buy out his contract and fire Coach Miller.

This contract buyout makes me think about students and professors at Indiana University.

I wonder how students at the school who struggle with food insecurity feel about this million dollar buyout?

 How about students who are not on scholarship? Many of these students like their parents at home are working multiple part-time jobs to cover the costs of college.

And don’t forget that university professor who teaches his/her heart out everyday. That same professor fights for funding to sustain critical research.

Where is the leadership of university presidents in the firing and buyouts of coaches? Do they have a voice? Or do the deep pockets of prominent alumni do the speaking for them?

Dr. Naismith invented a beautiful game. But recently, the beauty of the game is being tarnished by the desire to win at all cost— no matter how many dollars it costs to win.

Perhaps, there is a simple solution—a one year contract. 

Maybe university athletic directors and presidents should research Walter Alston. 

Mr. Alston managed the Los Angeles Dodgers for over twenty years. Every contract he signed with the Dodgers was for one year. During that time span, Mr. Alston’s teams won seven National League pennants and were World Series champions four times.

Despite its maddening flaws, college basketball still captures my attention.

However, I remain dismayed at the multiple layers of madness it causes in its pursuit to win.

When will university presidents and athletic directors collectively say enough?

Maybe saying enough to this coaching madness can be found in a quote from Winston Churchill: “Courage is the first of human qualities because it is the quality which guarantees all the others.”

University presidents and athletic directors, this coaching madness needs some courage.

A beautiful, but maddening game photo by Bill Pike