Holding On

Holding On by Bill Pike draft started 6/14/20

 “What strength do I have, that I should still hope? What prospects, that I should be patient?” Job 6:11 (NIV)

Today’s Reading 

Luke 13:6-9

Thought For The Day

By trusting the good Lord, holding on becomes manageable.

The hydrangea bush was a gift. 

It came in a small container with instructions for planting and care.

My wife found a good location for planting the bush. I planted it in the middle of a border at the end of our deck.

With time, the bush enjoyed its location and rapidly grew. Soon, the hydrangea produced beautiful blue blossoms.

Even though our care for the bush was consistent, one summer the hydrangea did not bloom. The next summer, we encountered the same.

Like the vineyard owner in Luke 13, my wife became impatient. She was ready for me to dig up the hydrangea.

But like the caregiver in the scripture, I asked for more time. The following summer the bush filled out with green leaves. But, we saw no signs of blooms. 

Late one evening we had a heavy rain shower. The next morning I was working in the yard. I stopped to look at the hydrangea, and sprinkled throughout the bush were the beginnings of tiny blossoms.

We live in an impatient world. 

Sometimes in life, our impatience makes us want to give up too soon. Holding on can be challenging.  

We even might feel like Job and wonder why should we be patient?

But, it can be in the holding on when we learn the patient caregiver the good Lord is with us.

And that can be the moment when we feel the extra strength and hope we need to hold on.

Prayer:  Father of us all, help us to be patient in our holding on. Amen

Submitted to the Upper Room for consideration 6/15/20

Rejected by the Upper Room 7/16/20

“America, you look lost.”

Mothers have an intuitive nature about their children. I think they can sense when something isn’t quite right with a child.

Perhaps in a different way, people who are responsible for taking care of a building might be intuitive too. 

Last week, when I walked into the church where I work, I heard a pump running. It was one of the pumps that helps keep our Sanctuary cool on these blistering hot July days. I knew the thermostat was turned up past the 80 degree mark. No way that pump should be running.

Turns out a tiny relay switch decided to misbehave. Truth is the switch was wearing out. That allowed it to send out just enough electricity to make a pump or an air handler run without reason. 

Thankfully, the technicians from the HVAC company who take care of our building tracked down the out of sorts switch. Our electricity bill would have been even higher if the pump or air handler had run for days unnoticed.

For me the last scene in the movie, Cast Away, has always been worth noticing. The film stars Tom Hanks and Helen Hunt. And one line of the dialogue in that scene has stayed with me.

The character Mr. Hanks portrays was given up for dead after the Federal Express plane he was in goes down in severe weather out over the ocean. Just in case you haven’t seen this 20 year old movie, I will not tell you anymore about how he endures.

But in that last scene, Mr. Hanks pulls his SUV over in a flat Texas cross road. He is looking at a road map on the hood of his vehicle trying to figure out where he is going.

A young lady in an old pickup truck sees him and stops. Her first comment to him is “you look lost.” 

I love that line. Because it makes me reflect about times in my life when I have been lost.

Now, I wasn’t lost, but a few nights ago that scene hit me as I was a few steps away from my bed after a 2 a.m. potty break.

And in terms of being lost the first word that popped into my brain as I tried to return to sleep was America. I thought to myself—“America, you look lost.”

Personally, I think America has been lost for a long, long, long time.  And I think the most frightening part of being lost is our stubborn unwillingness to admit that we are lost.

When  our presidents announce that the “state of the union is sound,” a voice deep inside of me always wants to whisper out “our union isn’t sound.”

  If we are sound why do we have so many problems and challenges? Why are we in such denial about these on going issues? Why can’t we solve our problems and challenges?

Perhaps, the answer to that question is found in the National Extremes. 

Not everyday, but quite often I note that section on the weather page in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. The National Extremes are the high and low temperature readings for the 48 contiguous states. 

I am always amazed when the national high and low are in California. Recently, Needles was the high at 111 degrees while the low was 28 at Bodie State Park. If you ever have the chance to visit Bodie, go—it is a ghost town.

According to Google Maps, the distance between Bodie and Needles is 449.1 miles. Truthfully, one of my fears about America is distance, the distance between our hearts, our souls, and our thinking. 

Why are we so far apart? Why is it so hard for us to find common ground and work for the common good? Where is our courage? Where is our sacrifice?

I know there were differences of opinion in World War II, but if our Greatest Generation had been this far apart during the war, might the unimaginable have occurred?

Right now, we Americans are reluctant to make the simple sacrifice of wearing masks during this pandemic. When I think about the sacrifices families made during World War II to support our country, quite honestly I am ashamed of our current inability to sacrifice during this crisis.

Drew Willson is a Methodist minister. He is also an accomplished songwriter, singer, and musician. His second album, Ritual Matters, contains a beautiful song titled “Between the Fences.” 

I am drawn to the last two stanzas: 

Now who will take a place between the fences?

Who will make this no-man’s land a land for you and me?

Now I’m yours and you’re mine

We reject the battle line

Now we’re making peace in places in between

Now I’m yours and you’re mine

Break the bread and pour the wine

Come on, set the table in the in between

Why are we afraid of the gap, the place between the fences, the no-man’s land, and the in-between between us? Why can’t we reject the battle lines? Why can’t we make peace in the places between us?

Bernard M. Baruch once stated:  “Most of the successful people I’ve known are the ones who do more listening than talking.”

Maybe that is our problem—we have failed at listening.

If my ears can hear the muffled sound of a pump that should not be running through layers of concrete and steel, then why can’t my ears hear the brokenness of my fellow man? 

What is wrong with my listening skills?

 In his book My Losing Season, Pat Conroy wrote:  “The great teachers fill you up with hope and shower you with a thousand reasons to embrace all aspects of life.”

Jesus was one of those great teachers. And maybe his best pedagogical skill was his ability to listen.

That is Jesus in Drew Willson’s lyrics.

Jesus knew the turf in between the fences, he knew the people in the no-man lands, and the places in between. And in all those situations Jesus stopped and listened.

Why can’t I?

Fear.

I am afraid to go between the fences, into the no-man lands, and the places in between.

And if fear is really driving me then that means I am ignoring these words from Joshua 1:9:   

Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”

Yes, I believe my country is lost.

If I want to help America find its bearings, then I must improve my hearing, drop my fear, and understand the people between the fences.

And I must never let go of hope.

And I must trust that the good Lord hasn’t given up on you, me, we, and America.

A cross road in my neighborhood

Grumpy’s Summer Vacation: Prepping for departure

I have been to this part of the North Carolina coast at least six times now. 

My first visit I was a chubby kid in elementary school. I can remember taking a ferry across Bogue Sound. We stayed in a cinder block beach house. My parents, my sister, and my mother’s mother, Granny, made the trip.

 I spoke with my mother’s niece, Lora, a few days ago. She confirmed my memory about the ferry and the house where we stayed. Lora knew the family we rented the house from that week. Eventually, Lora and her husband, Graham, purchased a lot, and put up a home on the sound side.

From the Virginia and South Carolina borders, the North Carolina coastline offers a lot to its residents and visitors.

Somehow, these narrow strips of barrier islands and shorelines continue to beat the odds and hang on. At times, I ask how this fragile land withstands all that we humans toss at them. 

I wonder what the wildlife thinks about our presence.

 Maybe the cackle of the laughing seagull is really a laugh of dismay as they take in our appetite to gobble up every square inch of the coastlands for development. 

I hope someone a lot smarter than me can figure out a balance. A balance that will protect this precious coastline for many generations beyond me.

If a person makes a visit to this part of the North Carolina coast without making a drive over to Beaufort, then I think this person should be banned for life from the old north state’s coastline.

Beaufort is a postcard. 

It is a charmer. 

I think all of the adjectives in the dictionary have been used to describe Beaufort by travel writers and tourist industry promoters.

My favorite place in Beaufort is the Fishtowne Brewery. It is unique. 

The brewery is located in a narrow, compact building about the length and width of your pinkie finger. Even if you are not a beer drinker, you should poke your head in the door to admire the ingenuity of how the architect created this space.

We made three drives over to Beaufort during our stay at Atlantic Beach, two for dinner, and one just to mousy around.

I imagine that Beaufort with all of its charms isn’t immune from challenges.

Just a short drive out of the waterfront, local shops, and historical homes the landscape changes. That is the story for a lot of American cities and towns—the landscape changes as we move out of the pretty places that attract us.

Those landscape changes, gaps continue to trouble my heart. These very real gaps are more than the differences in the separation of city blocks.

 I see the gaps between us in who wears a mask and who doesn’t. I see the gaps in the flags blowing on boats that pass along the Beaufort waterfront. 

And I think about the engineering feats of the bridges in these coastal flatlands. They carry us to the barrier island beaches without too many problems. But, we still struggle to build personal bridges in our communities to help us with our on going challenges.  

On Friday, I took a part and cleaned up my fishing equipment. I walked over to the dock where the stunt fish lured me, and I unloaded my remaining shrimp. The gulls on the dock pilings were thankful. 

Two sad looking teenage boys affirmed for me what I had already learned—the stunt fish and bait stealers had conquered them too.

While the Commander Supreme and Elizabeth were in their happy place down on the beach, I took a long ride. I poked along the succession of beach towns south of Atlantic Beach. I made one stop to walk through the new Publix. My gosh that company must have deep pockets.

I took the B. Cameron Langston Bridge to carry me over the sound. Years ago that ferry I took as a youngster probably chugged through these same waters. My how the world has changed.

Soon, the bridge and the sound are behind me. I had only been on the mainland a few seconds when I note to my left a wide, long border of sunflowers growing in the hot July sun. They were spectacular.

 At the intersection, I made a right turn on to North Carolina 24. This was a quiet ride back into Morehead City. And I thought about the people who live on either side of NC 24. I wonder how often these people take time to enjoy Bogue Sound and the beaches along North Carolina 58? Maybe they go when the tourists are gone.

Tomorrow is Saturday. That means packing and departing, and wrestling again with my travel friend the rooftop carrier.

Organizing for the packing went well. On Saturday morning, the rooftop carrier and I were on friendly terms. This time I made sure I snugged up the flailing straps.

Repacking the car went well. 

We stopped at the Atlantic Beach Surf Shop for a quick walk through. This was a really nice store.

Next, we dropped off the keys at the rental office. Elizabeth navigated across the traffic to head us toward the bridge over the sound and into Morehead City. I noted a bit of disappointment from the driver and co-pilot as they took one last look at the sound in all its summer glory.

On the way out of Morehead City, we stopped at the Friendly Market. This is a dangerous stop as the store is loaded with all kinds of homemade items and in season produce. The cooler had been carefully positioned in the back of the car for loading up the yummy purchases.

Even though I was reluctant to make this trip, I enjoyed being away from home and work.  Beach trips are hard work. But something keeps drawing us back to the sand, the restless waves, the salt air, and the best friend of all dermatologists—the sun.

Maybe next year, Lauren’s husband, Doug, and our son, Andrew, his wife, Kathryn, and their girls Josie and Ellie will make the trip.

We made it back to Raleigh, and eventually Richmond.

No blue lights pulled the heavy foots over.

I’m sure months from now a daydream will tug at me. 

And that tug will take me back to the beach. It will temporarily remove me from the challenges and distractions that are consuming me. 

And for a few brief seconds, life will be as calm and peaceful as the effortless glide of pelicans riding thermals over the constant churn of the breakers.

I’ll take that glide. 

And at the same time, I will ask— why can’t we find the pelicans’ peaceful glide within ourselves and those who we encounter everyday?

The sun rising over Bogue Sound photo taken by Bill Pike on my iPhone

Grumpy’s Summer Vacation: Fishing is a conspiracy

I brought three fishing rods with me on this trip. I seriously thought about bringing none.

But my internal voice talked me into going on-line to purchase a North Carolina saltwater fishing license. Now, I had to take the gear with me.

My father-in-law introduced me to saltwater fishing. I learned a lot from him. Luckily, he was always patient with me. A high percentage of the fishing gear in our basement came from him and the Commander Supreme’s brother.

For this trip, I decided to take two lightweight rods and my fly fishing rod.

 My fly fishing mentor, the Commander’s brother-in-law, Art, has been patient with me too. Art has tried to convert me to fly fishing. I am sure this is a decision he regrets. But, on the bright side, my ineptness with the fly rod has brought Art some good laughs.

I think on Monday morning I rigged up one of the rods with a lure.  I had not been to Tight Lines the local fishing store where I usually buy some bait. Anyway, the light rod worked well. Casting out past the breakers wasn’t a problem, but I had no nibbles. 

A fellow fisherman down to my right was fishing with bait. Eventually, I noted that he caught a fish. At some point, I walked over to ask what he was using for bait. He responded with a sharing kindness—shrimp and mullet.

I made a drive to Tight Lines to buy some shrimp. That boating dock on the sound side looked like a good place to fish. I now had all three rods rigged up—one with a lure, one to use with the shrimp bait, and the fly rod with a fly that I thought would tempt fish to bite.

For two days I fished early in the morning and later in the afternoon. 

The only thing I caught was over in the sound. 

I had heard a big splash behind me toward the shore. I turned to see the ripples of what was left of the splash. So, I made a short cast with a lure toward the shoreline of the salt marsh. 

As I was reeling back across the water, the lure snagged up on something below the surface. I tugged, but there was no movement. I adjusted the position of the rod and gave a gentle pull, and the line lurched free.

But, I could feel weight on the end of the line. I kept reeling in the line, and soon I saw my prized catch—a small clump of oysters.

Those oysters were encased in a blackness from years of living in that inky muck that was as dark as spent lawn mower oil. Gently, I unhooked the bi-valves from the lure, and let them gracefully fall back into their home.

These two days of fishing only served to reaffirm for me that fishing is a conspiracy.

From my casting point on the dock, I saw beautiful fish jumping. Sometimes, a singular fish would jump in multiple succession like an acrobat or a gracefully leaping ballerina. I would get all worked up, and cast perfectly into that area just knowing that a fish was going to take my bait.

But, that never happened. Those fish are what I call stunt fish. They are part of the conspiracy. 

Stunt fish are professional jumpers and leapers. I’m convinced an audit of the bookkeeping practices of all the bait and tackle stores in this part of the North Carolina coast would find a special ledger entry—stunt fish school.  These fish are trained to tease fishermen.

For store owners, these stunt fish generate more revenue. How so you might ask?

Well, to begin with fishermen like myself are not wired properly. Fishermen are driven to catch fish at all cost. 

So with the teasing stunt fish in mind, a fisherman will make countless trips back to the bait and tackle shops. There the fisherman will describe to the expert clerk all of the jumping fish he has seen. 

And, the clerk will be smiling inside saying to himself another sucker, thank you stunt fish. The fisherman will leave the store with mass quantities of bait, assorted lures, and the assurance from the expert that fish will be caught.

I am convinced that if Congress had the courage to launch an investigation, they would find secret training facilities for the stunt fish, a trail of cash bidding for the best jumping fish, and kick backs from lure manufacturers to retail shop owners. 

This could be a conspiracy as wide sweeping as the cahoots uncovered between milk and bread suppliers when snowstorms are forecast for Southern states.

Even though nibbling fish or crabs always  took my bait, and I lost two flies casting with my fly rod, I’ll stop my whining.

Because here is the trade off for not catching any fish.

When casting into the ocean’s surf, I marveled at the clarity of the water around my feet that allowed me to see minnows in tidal pools and shells tumbling in the undertow. I can see people up and down the beach who at that very moment in their lives seem to be content, and far, far away from any troubles.

Over on the sound side, I can see the life cycles of the tide. 

I watch a singular great white heron stalking for a snack against the healthy green background of the marsh grass.

 I observe the happy team work of a father and his daughter as they pursue the elusive blue crabs in the murky water around the pilings of the dock. 

And one afternoon, I’m treated to rainbow colors on the eastern horizon as the sun’s rays thrust into the sudden burst of a rain shower.

Yes, I will go to my grave convinced that there is a fishing conspiracy. 

And who knows, maybe my fishing skills will improve or luck will find me the next time I have the privilege of fishing here. However,  this would cast doubt on the conspiracy theory.

But in truth, I am thankful for the conspiracy theory. 

Here’s why: it gives me more than fish memories.

Grumpy’s Summer Vacation

Part I: unhinged packing

During the week of June 29, stuff started piling up in different places of the house. That was the early warning signal.

 On the afternoon of Friday, July 3 just a few minutes after five, my unhinging started with the rooftop carrier. Beach chairs, my suitcase, a traveling booster seat, an inflatable pool, a bag full of required beach items, and a case holding a fly rod were to be stuffed into the carrier.

The installing of the rooftop carrier started quietly. But, by the ten minute mark, I snapped. 

Perhaps, it was the heat and humidity of the afternoon. Or maybe weariness from a long day of chores was the reason. Or maybe, it was my alter ego, the beach grump who took over. 

Getting that rooftop carrier properly positioned, secured, and loaded correctly was driving me nuts. My use of non-seminarian words ricocheted off the carrier and the items being packed. I was as repulsive as a prickly sand spur on hot beach sand.

My fear with roof top carriers is at some point during the trip, I’ll look into the rearview mirror, and I’ll note all of this debris sailing down the highway. Drivers of vehicles behind me will be swerving to dodge items that suddenly look quite familiar to me.  

Eventually, an ounce of sanity returns. The skirmish with the rooftop carrier and its contents are over. Properly positioned, secured, and loaded, that is one less item to deal with on Saturday morning.

Part II: on the road

For Saturday, July 4, the goal is to be on the road by 8 a.m. Surprisingly, we make that goal.

But, as we are leaving Richmond, I have to pull over at the River Road Shopping Center.  A couple of straps on the rooftop carrier are being a nuisance. They are slapping harmlessly against the side of the carrier. But, it is the type of continuous tapping that will drive me nuts. So, I stop, and retie the loose straps. 

I drive us to the North Carolina Welcome Center. Then the Commander Supreme takes over the drive. I think she could qualify as a NASCAR or Indy driver. She makes up time on the ground just like an airline pilot tells passengers he/she will make up time in the air for being off schedule.

We will drive to Raleigh, stop at the home of our youngest daughter, Elizabeth, and load all of her beach junk into any openings in our car. Sweet as she is, Elizabeth never has been and never will be a light packer. Pretty sure, she learned from me.

No blue lights trailed us into Raleigh, but the second round of packing pain was about to begin. Don’t ask me how, but all of Elizabeth’s beach junk found a spot in the car.

Elizabeth took over the drive from Raleigh to Atlantic Beach. The Commander Supreme was her co-pilot. I was assigned a six by six inch  square in the only back seat available. Elizabeth has her mother’s heavy foot. Cramped like a stowaway, I closed my eyes, and white knuckled anything I could hold on to for the ride to the beach.

My eyes did squint open enough to admire the flatness of the coastal plain of North Carolina. Rich farmland, and dense, thick forest scamper along beside us. I wonder if some of those forest are the same as they were hundreds of years ago, and I wonder how many generations of families have farmed the same acres of land.

As coastal plain towns disappear in the rearview mirror, soon we are on the outskirts of Morehead City. We merge with the traffic heading toward Atlantic Beach. The bridge carries us over Bogue Sound. It is low tide, and the sandbars of the sound are popular stopping points for boaters and their families.

It is probably a miracle, but we are able to pick up the key for the condo early. We find the place, figure out how to unload via stairs and an elevator, and then we collapse.

But, that collapse was short. We were scheduled to drive over to Beaufort for dinner at the Front Street Grill at Stillwater.

Wearing our masks, we find an open outside table at the restaurant. The staff is complying with all of the COVID-19 safety protocols.

Maybe, we felt a tiny bit safer sitting outside, but to tell you the truth, I really did not want to go on this trip— my reason COVID-19. I don’t trust it. No matter how compliant I am, I don’t trust this virus, and all of its mean characteristics.

I worry while we are here that we might unknowingly be exposed. I could not live with myself if that happened for my wife, our children, or grandchildren.

But, I’m here, and I will try not to be too grumpy.

Part III: invaders approaching

Saturday night was pretty quiet. The Commander Supreme and Elizabeth took the short walk to the beach, and from there, they could see multiple firework displays.

On this Sunday morning, July 5,  I promised myself to go for a run. I decided to go what in my mind is south along West Fort Macon Road. The town of Atlantic Beach has done a nice job of providing sidewalks and boardwalks along this busy road.

Eventually, my sidewalk runs out, and taking in the sights, I missed my crosswalk cue to move to the other side. I jog facing the oncoming traffic, I eventually find a cutover and get to the boardwalk path on the sound side.

I keep going, but not that much further. Just short of the entrance of the Hampton Inn, I decide to turn around and head back. This time, I don’t miss the crosswalk, and I work my way back to the Dunescape Villas where we are staying.

For cooling down, I cross over the main road to the parking lot across the road. This is the overflow lot for guest parking.

 Our oldest daughter, Lauren, and her two children are driving down from the Raleigh area later this morning. So, I wanted to check out the lot for her just in case all the guest parking spaces were taken near the condos.

While there, I note a singular swing and a picnic table. This is all under the shade provided by a pretty live oak tree. I also find a nice boardwalk that starts out under a canopy of live oaks. The boardwalk leads out to the sound where there is ample dock space for boaters, but also a good spot for fishing and crabbing.

On the walk back down the boardwalk, I recall a car I had seen on my run. The car was parked in a hotel lot. On one of the side window panels of this large SUV were these handprinted words: Jesus Lives along with a cross drawn in beside it.

I’ll be honest with you. In this crazy world of ours, I find myself wondering if the words—Jesus Lives— are true.

If he lives, why isn’t Jesus down here straightening us out?

Maybe Jesus thinks we are too far gone.

Somedays, I agree—we are too far gone.

But, then I remember, if I’m any kind of a human being, Jesus should be living through me.

And if Jesus is supposed to be living through me —what am I doing wrong?

Part IV:   Irreplaceable

From the time they arrived about mid-morning on July 5 until they departed on Wednesday morning, July 8, everything we did focused on our two grandchildren, Caroline and Hudson.

Can you say the word spoil? That was all that Elizabeth and the Commander Supreme did to Caroline and Hudson during their time with us.

It was a treat to have them and their Mom here.  We’ve seen more of Lauren, her husband, Doug, and the grandkids since their move from Chicago last summer. Having started a new job, Doug wasn’t able to join us.

The grands wasted no time getting ready for the beach. Lathering up, chairs, towels, toys, and numerous other necessary items were all hauled down to the beach.

Wave jumping, hole digging, forming sand towers, hunting for shells,  and wading in tidal pools became part of the daily routine.

Now, I rechecked the calendar to confirm that today was Sunday, July 5, but right at 9 that evening, the Fourth of July returned. 

Not sure who the sponsors were, but for a good 15 minutes fireworks were erupting again. We just knew Caroline and Hudson would hear all of those booms, but remarkably they slept.

From time to time, Caroline and Hudson are early risers. A bad habit probably inherited from me. On Tuesday morning, they both were up just as the sun was rising. So, Lauren and I quickly organized a short walk for them over to the sound side.

We crossed the quiet road, moved across the dry parking lot toward the start of the boardwalk path. As we worked our way along the boardwalk, we noted tiny crabs scurrying across the weathered gray timbers.

At some point, Caroline picked up on the low tide aroma of the salt marsh. She didn’t like it, but maybe someday she’ll appreciate those life sustaining ecosystems in all that muck.

Out on the boat dock, the new morning was still. The water’s surface was a flat mirror reflecting patchy clouds to the east with a bright sun coyly peeking behind them.

As we headed back to the condo, we stopped so Caroline could take a ride on the singular swing that was hanging from the sturdy limb of a live oak tree.

Live oaks are such beautiful trees in these coastal towns. I wonder why developers are so drawn to putting the non-native palm trees in so many places. Why not plant more majestic live oaks? They offer so much more than an out of place palm tree.

Our routine at the beach continued that morning, and the afternoon brought a treat—ice cream. 

We took a short ride to the AB Ice Cream and Candy Shoppe. For a grumpy old guy, there is nothing like a small cup of coconut ice cream on a hot and humid summer afternoon. And I’m assuming for grandchildren, not only do they like the ice cream, but they also appreciate whoever invented sprinkles.

Wednesday morning arrived too quick. Before we knew it, we were helping Lauren repack her car for the drive back to Cary. I was going to miss my two pals and the paces they put me through down on the beach. 

Now the condo would be different. 

The kid chatter, and the patter of bare summer feet on vinyl planking was gone.

Our entertainment had departed. 

And they were irreplaceable.

square peg

John Lennon and Paul McCartney together and individually have written many beautiful and thought provoking songs. Their catalog of tunes with and without The Beatles is impressive.

In two songs “Eleanor Rigby” and “Nowhere Man” some interesting questions are asked.

The chorus in “Eleanor Rigby” notes “all the lonely people” and asks two questions: “Where do they all come from, and where do they all belong?”

Loneliness is all around us. 

Loneliness comes in all sorts of shapes, sizes, angles, and personalities. 

It might be very obvious or buried deep in a person’s soul. 

I assume that isolation, lack of self-confidence, even the redundancy of routine can contribute to making a person feel lonely. And yet, like a barely audible whisper, lonely people call out. 

I wonder in my daily living how many whispers of loneliness I have missed. I wonder how I might position myself to be more aware of people around me who are confined by loneliness.

I have the same wonder about people I have misread, misjudged, mistreated, and failed to understand. How do I react when these people don’t fit in my world?

 Thinking back about my work with students in school environments, I encountered numerous students who were “square pegs.” They just could never seem to find the right fit. Why was that?

Did I fail them as a teacher, administrator, and human being? Did I in my desire to help them fit in my world miss what they were truly searching for as they attempted to navigate school? Did my misunderstanding of their needs only create more isolation, loneliness, and difficulty for them?

In The Beatles song “Nowhere Man” in describing the dilemmas faced by nowhere man, this question is asked: “Isn’t he a bit like you and me?”

The truth is if we really take the time to carefully look at ourselves, we would find bits of our lives that are similar to the lonely people, nowhere man, and the square peg.

In that truth is this:  deep, deep inside of us we all want to fit, we want to be accepted, we all want to belong. The same is true for the lonely, nowhere man, and the square peg.

So, with the time I have left on this earth, how do I improve my capacity to become better at understanding the lonely, nowhere man,  and the square peg?

Maybe the starting point is to not to overly focus on the differences in the people I encounter each day, but to dig deeper to find our similarities.

For years, I resisted saying goodbye to my flip phone. My wife being much wiser than I am, put her foot down and brought me into the world of the iPhone. That iPhone has more applications on it than Van Camp’s has pork and beans. It is clear I will never use all those apps, but I have enjoyed the built in camera.

Because of that camera, I have the ability to instantly snap a picture.

A few weeks ago I was mowing the yard on a sunny afternoon. 

For some reason, I took a quick look at our front porch. The sunlight in the western sky had perfectly cast a ray of light through the glass from the light fixture mounted on the brick wall.

Down on the dingy surface of the worn, peppered gray concrete was a rectangular shaped prism of rainbow colors. I quickly took a photo.

I have gazed into that snapshot quite a bit. Amazed at how the angle of light was just right to create that small splash of colors.

Love must be somewhere in that rainbow of colors.

Whether we want to admit it or not, lonely people, nowhere man, square pegs, you, me, we—we’re all in that rainbow.

Author Carson McCullers once stated:  “We are homesick most for the places we have never known.”

I think her words capture the lonely, nowhere man, and the square pegs pretty well.

Most likely, they have never known what they are searching for in their lives.

We have an opportunity to change that.

That change is the love in the rainbow.

People need it. 

Especially right now.

march

On the afternoon of Sunday, June 14, I drove out to the Fairfield Library in Henrico County.  Located on Laburnum Avenue, the library was to be the starting point for A March for Unity. This event was put together by the Richmond District of the United Methodist Church.  The start time was 3 p.m.

For some reason, I did not find out about this march until Sunday morning. But, I determined I was going, and I went.

Before leaving the house, I covered my beyond pale legs in sunscreen, put on a long sleeved shirt, brought along a wide brimmed hat, and put in a pocket my newest friend—a handmade facial mask.

I stayed off the interstate on my drive to the library. It was a pretty June afternoon.

By the time I arrived, a small crowd was beginning to gather. With sun glasses, hats, and masks, it was tough to recognize people. But, early on, I did see a couple of friends, Ginny Willis and Elizabeth Compton,  who I knew from church work and the school system. I enjoyed catching up with them for a few minutes.

People kept trickling in, and it seemed like getting started was being delayed. But, eventually our District Superintendent, Pete Moon, started to get our attention. 

Pete was using a megaphone to gather us. Initially, it took a few minutes for all us chatterboxes to stop talking and listen to Pete. If nothing else, Methodist are methodical, and we eventually figured out we needed to be quiet.

Pete introduced and turned over the next few minutes to Reverend Rodney Hunter who offered prayer, march instructions, and some heartfelt thoughts about an important question:  Why are we here?

Once Reverend Hunter concluded his remarks, we started the very short walk on to Laburnum Avenue. We were heading west on Laburnum. Officers from Henrico County Police had blocked the two travels lanes. We had lots of room, but this crowd of about 300 was moving slow.

Along the way, participants waved signs, sang, chanted words of encouragement, shouted out the names of African Americans who had lost their lives from racial injustice, and acknowledged horn toots and hand waves of support from drivers in the east bound lanes. 

While walking, I recognized fellow Trinity member Anne Burch who was there with her husband, Bill. We listened and participated with our fellow marchers, talked, and at times were silent.

Once off Laburnum, we wound our way through neighborhood streets. Our stopping point was the home of the Worship and Praise Church. On the tree shaded front grounds of the church, we came to a stop.

Reverend Tim Kirven pastor of the church gave us leadership at this point. His wife Michelle sang a beautiful song, and then a young man from Woodlake UMC, James Lee, offered a scripture reading from Amos 5:21-24.

Before introducing the Bishop, Reverend Kirven offered some words of inspiration too. 

Our Bishop for the Virginia United Methodist Conference, Sharma Lewis is a busy lady. And, I will not pretend to remember every word she stated, but I will never forget what she asked us to do.

If we were physically able, Bishop Lewis asked us to kneel on one knee for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. This was the amount of time that George Floyd was pinned down by the Minneapolis police officer.

During this 8:46, Bishop Lewis made points of emphasis related to time. Occasionally, in the stillness of the shaded grounds, a random voice called out “I can’t breathe.” A few times other voices called out “momma.” And, the strained polite request “please” was also voiced.

Finally, the last seconds ticked away. Unlike George Floyd, we were able to rise, finish the march, and go home.

Nothing I have been through in my life compares to that 8:46—nothing.

I’m glad that Pete Moon and the Richmond District organized the march. It was a good opportunity to learn. Clearly, I have lots of learning left to do.

That learning will need to go much deeper than toppling statues, changing brand names, and peaceful protest that become violent and destructive.

America is still a powder keg.

It is like when the summer heat and winds have cooked every ounce of water from the undergrowth along a parched, dusty trail out in California’s Eastern Sierra Mountains. It only takes one tiny spark to birth an out of control wildfire.

The layers of our society are just as tense as that undergrowth. 

One disruptive agitation can ignite a ferocious reaction.

Somehow, we must find the path for dialogue. We must sit down, talk, and listen. And the key to this is having that conversation with people who I don’t know. Without these critical conversations, I worry that we will not be able to move forward and make long overdue improvements.

I am currently reading Osha Gray Davidson’s book The Best of Enemies— Race and Redemption in the New South. The book focuses on Durham, North Carolina and the integration of its school system. But, the author in constructing this story about Durham also includes lots of historical information about race relations in America, but particularly North Carolina.

After recounting the student led sit-ins in Greensboro and Durham, Davidson makes this point:  “It is no exaggeration to say that without the church, there would have been no movement.”

I wonder if our present circumstances are the opportunity for all churches to become involved in leading their communities to the critical dialogue needed to help us move forward.

Recently, two words from John Chapter 11 verse 35 caught my attention:  “Jesus wept.”

I would imagine that God and Jesus have shed quite a few tears over our current state. And, I’m pretty sure there have been times in my life when I contributed to their tears.

Stopping those tears is within our reach. It is a matter of truly embracing and putting to work the longstanding teachings of God and Jesus.

Even in the most difficult environments, we must: “Love our neighbors.

When we find the courage to love our neighbors and put that love to work, then the words from Amos Chapter 5 will ring true: “Let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!”

Coming for Christmas 2020: The Heart Changer

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

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

The assist for his smile goes to COVID-19. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You’re never too old to be afraid.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The PSA would simply be scrolled across the television screen:  

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

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

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

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

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

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

Courage, patience, and honesty will drive this listening.

Calendar is moving. Christmas is coming. 

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

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

A companion for your lonely soul: Brian Wilson #78

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

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

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

Today, June 20, Brian Wilson turns 78.

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

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

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

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

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

Brian is a survivor. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunflower turns 50 this year. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Birthday Brian Wilson!

I pray there will be many more.

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

It will be good for your soul.