It’s more than fishing

When a trip to coastal waters is planned, I always have an internal debate. 

The debate centers on these questions—do I want to secure a saltwater fishing license from the appropriate state, do I want to haul all of the necessary equipment with me, can I withstand the teasing taunts of the fish who like skilled acrobats jump within feet of me, but who elude being caught?

So far, my answer has been— yes. 

But, I know there is a trip in the future, where my brain will say to me—forget it you old fool. You can’t do this any more. You’ll do something unwise. My brain will advise—park yourself in a chair on the beach. Nap and occasionally chuckle at the fishermen and their attempts to catch fish.

 After all, that’s what people did while watching your attempts to catch fish. But, they didn’t quietly chuckle. They laughed so hard that they cried watching your incompetence.

From July 3-10, 2021, our family was going to be on Topsail Island, North Carolina. This would be our first trip to Topsail in the summer. Years ago, my wife and I attended a winter wedding. That weekend was beautiful and unseasonably warm on Topsail.

Topsail is one of the many barrier islands along the spectacular North Carolina coast. These islands were really intended to be barriers to help protect the mainland’s shoreline. 

But, a long time ago, a curious soul left the mainland in a boat and came ashore on a barrier island.  Clearly, this person thought what a place to get away.

That was the beginning. 

It started simple with a seasonal fishing or hunting shack, then a wood framed cottage, more cottages, relators/developers/legislators conspired, infrastructure expanded, swing/draw bridges from the mainland were replaced with towering multilane bridges, high rise condos sprouted, and pretty soon what was once a tranquil, pretty creation of mother nature is now a cookie cutter beach town. 

Topsail is a long island almost 26 miles in length, and we were going to be in the town of Surf City. 

Our house faced the main road with the beach and the Atlantic Ocean across the street. Thanks to the developers of this section of houses, we also had easy access to the sound behind us. For a fisherman, this is heaven—two options for casting a line— ocean or sound.

I secured and printed my North Carolina saltwater fishing license on-line. I properly used scissors to clip the license and placed it in a small, sealable sandwich bag. The license could now travel safely in my shirt or shorts pockets. In all my years of saltwater fishing, I only have been asked to show my license once.

For this trip, I brought two light, spinning rods, and my fly rod. My level of comfort is with the spinning rods. Tying a lure or using cut bait with a hook and a weight is a set up I can handle.

With the fly rod, I am still a novice. No expertise at all. I bring the fly rod just on the chance that I can practice using it on a wide open space along the sound.

I picked up some frozen shrimp at the longstanding IGA grocery store that is easy access when you come off the Surf City bridge.

While we were on Topsail, I fished the ocean and the sound, but I had more fun on the sound. Plus, I actually caught two tiny fish—a pinfish and a croaker. The croaker true to form actually croaked when he landed on the grass turf, and the pinfish’s delicate coloring sparkled in afternoon sun rays. 

The sound access was ideal. The creators of this development had an inlet cut between two sections of houses. The inlet was wide enough for docks to be built on either side, and they also at the east end constructed a ramp for seasonal loading in or out of boats.

One morning after fishing on the sound side, I decided to go for a run on the beach. The tide was still out, so the packed sand was perfect for an old goat to lift his legs. 

I headed north, lathered in sunscreen and wearing a hat. Shell searchers, walkers, and a few fishermen were out. When I passed fishermen, I carefully studied their set ups, but I was also being careful to stay behind their berths.

This was quite a change from my neighborhood runs in Richmond. I was enjoying the whims of the Atlantic beside me while also scanning the houses on my left. I noted that milepost markers were staked out along the sand dunes. At some point, I decided it was time to turn around. The sun, the humidity, and the dew point were conspiring. So I made a u-turn to head back.

On that way back, I came upon two fishermen that I had earlier passed. My brain was somewhere else. I uncharacteristically started to run under their taut lines.

Suddenly, they saw my approach, and with lots of urgency they shouted and waved me off.

I quickly navigated behind them while at the same time apologizing for my blunder. 

I was just a few steps passed them when I heard a kaboom. I looked back to see that the fishermen had fired a homemade cannon. This straight piped cannon was loaded with a baited hook, a weight,  and enough line to traject it out way beyond the breakers.

I marveled at their ingenuity and wondered if I might had been wounded by stinky bait, a weight,  and a gnarly hook if they hadn’t shooed me off.

In David Halberstam’s book The Teammates A Portrait of a Friendship, he describes the internal debate he has within himself before sitting down to conduct his first interview with Ted Williams. Not only was Ted Williams a very gifted hitter of baseballs, but he was an accomplished fisherman too.  

Halberstam grades his own fishing skills, and rates himself about a C+ with a fly rod. Knowing that Ted Williams prefers fishing with a fly rod, the author decides not to bring up fishing. He reasons that the purpose of the interview could be lost to a different Williams’ passion.

At the end of the interview, Halberstam quietly confides to Williams that he enjoys fishing. Of course Ted Williams chastises him for not speaking up. Williams asserts—“we could have spent the day fishing, and done the interview tomorrow.”

At that moment, David Halberstam was thankful he had listened to the wisdom of his internal voice and focused on the interview. Because he listened to his inner reasoning, Halberstam assessed his day with Ted Williams as “magical.” He felt like he had witnessed Ted Williams’ “joyousness and zest for life.” 

If I were to grade myself as a saltwater fishermen, I would give myself an A+ for letting fish and smart crabs steal my bait. Yet, in the end that’s ok—because there is something more magical than bait bandits going on here.

From this tiny point of land that gently juts into the waters of the sound, I without distractions see the sun inching up in the East.  In that solitude, I wonder why the sun wants to rise on such a troubled world?

 In that quiet morning light, I witness undisturbed water, flat like a  mirror reflecting a still calmness, and I want to know why we struggle to still our souls with kindness in our interactions with each other.

And in a blink of my eyes that reflective surface is broken by the energetic leap of a fish. I want to know do have the energy and courage deep inside my soul to change not for myself, but for the good of the people I encounter.

Back at the beach house, four little cherubs are probably up by now.

Upon my reentry to the house, I will offer them a sweaty, stinky shrimp bait hug. 

They will shout “no papa” and scurry away.

In a blink, those little angels will be grown.

I pray I don’t let them down.

All photos Bill Pike Topsail Island, North Carolina July 2021

God knows, “Life is life.”

Robert had never heard his SUV make this unrecognizable sound. He was close to his home, but Robert could not coax any more forward movement out of the vehicle.

The SUV had been a loyal friend for Robert. A 2003 model, it now had over 352,000 miles on the odometer. In the back of Robert’s mind, he was thinking this is the end, something is seriously wrong with this old tank.

For a couple of days, he let the tired vehicle sit. Then, he found a repair shop that could run a complete diagnostic test, and Robert had the SUV towed to this garage.

Expecting the worse, but hoping for the best, Robert waited for the results of the test. While he waited, Robert tried to figure out what he would do if the SUV was unrepairable. Robert could not imagine trying to replace his reliable friend.

Sometimes like vehicles, we receive bad news regarding the  internal workings of our bodies. 

A few weeks ago, an older, but still spry member of our church received some lousy news—that demon cancer had decided to invade her body. 

Mrs. S’s doctor told her to think about living for another 39 months. No one wants to hear news like this. Especially, with a frail husband, and a grandson that she wants to see graduate from high school.

For another church family, summer means an annual trek to Cape May, New Jersey. Shortly after arriving with her husband at this cherished location, excruciating abdominal pain overtook Pat. 

Taken to a mainland hospital, a tumor was discovered. 

Eventually, Pat was flown back to Richmond. Further testing was done only to reveal that the tumor’s location prohibited surgery. Doctors deemed it was too risky to try to remove the attacker. In a blink, this sweet lady who is always full of life and giving for others is now in hospice.

This past Thursday, I spent a pretty summer afternoon with former faculty members from Lakeside Elementary School. We had lots of catching up to do. And while we might still look like spring chickens, some of our quiet conversations centered on our aging health skirmishes or the health of loved ones.

One teacher shared the recent diagnosis of her sister, Robyn, who is in a battle with stage 4 colon cancer. That hateful cancer has spread to her liver too. The prognosis is bleak, but Robyn is tolerating the treatments, and there is this word—hope.

Shortly after turning three, my cousin, Alice’s grandson, Eoin, was diagnosed with leukemia. Three years later in November of 2019, Eoin finished his treatments. A tough, long battle, but Eoin won.

This past June, Eoin and his family learned he has a rare heart defect—pulmonary artery sling. Turns out Eoin has been living with this for his eight years of life.

When Eoin was informed about his condition, this was his comment—“Life is life.”

No crying, no tantrum, no making faces at the doctor—“Life is life.”

And you know, Eoin is right. 

Everyday, life comes after us. 

Some days are good. Some days are not so good. 

And whether life is good or bad, why is out there. 

We want to know why life is either good or bad.

We want to know where God is in the good and bad.

When life is really bad, we want to know—hey God where are you in this?

I think God is there in the good and the bad. We just want God to be around more when life is bad.

My friend Robert can tell you about the good and bad of life. 

The good—his SUV has new life. The bad— Robert is always wondering if his body can keep fighting off multiple health challenges.

The SUV with new life. Photo Bill Pike

Robert, Mrs. S, Pat, Robyn, Eoin and their families in their own unique and personal ways want to know—why?

I can’t tell you why. 

But thanks to Eoin, I can tell you—“Life is life.”

And even though it is difficult to trust when life challenges us, somehow we have to trust that God— in these grim situations has surrounded us. 

Because God also knows and understands—“Life is life.”

Author’s note: On the afternoon of Sunday, August 8, the inoperable tumor took Pat’s last breath. Prayers.

Jesus Come Soon To Dismal Hollow Road

This was not a typical Sunday for our family.  The Commander Supreme had been on top of the logistics for this one all summer.  There was no run for me on this Sunday morning.  No sir,  I had my orders, and I was ready to move out

First, we were driving Andrew to northern Virginia to participate in the Greater Richmond Aquatics League Champs Competition.  After Champs, we were back in the van with a destination of Goshen, Virginia to drop Andrew off at Boy Scout camp for the week.

While we were driving to Champs, our two daughters, Lauren and Elizabeth, were supposed to be making their final preps for a youth mission trip to Philadelphia.  

From a family dynamics perspective, this was an interesting pairing for a mission trip.  Betsy and I debated all week as to whether we should warn Forrest(youth director) about these two.  

Since Philadelphia is known as the “City of Brotherly Love”, we decided to gamble with the concept that maybe after the trip Philadelphia might be known as the “City of Sisterly Love”. 

Well, we all awoke at our appointed times.  Even our sleepyhead, Elizabeth, much to Lauren’s relief was up and making her final preps for departure.  The Commander Supreme made last minute checks of everyone’s list of orders, then we said our goodbyes, and phase one of the operation was off to Champs.

While driving to Champs the Commander Supreme worried out loud.  Would the girls make it to church without trading verbal insults?  I hope they are not too disappointed that we aren’t there for their send off.  Do you think we should have called Forrest, and then the cell phone rang.  

If we’d had a tension meter in the van it would have gone off the scale.  It was Lauren, not the Henrico County police.  They needed some large trash bags to finish off the packing.  Whew! what a relief, they only needed trash bags, and as usual like all great leaders, the Commander had this covered.

We made it to Champs at George Mason University’s beautiful Aquatics Center.  This sure beat being in the intense July heat and humidity, swatting mosquitoes, tramping around in mud, and dodging lightning bolts which had happened at past Champs events.  Even though the event managed to get off schedule, by late afternoon, Andrew was finished, and we departed ready to find Goshen.

Our exit out of the Aquatics Center put us on the connector that would take us to Interstate 66 which would eventually hook us up to Interstate 81.  

It had been those before kids years since Betsy and I had traveled through this part of the state.  As we pushed on to 66, the landscape became more appealing, and we could make out hazy ridges of mountains as we traveled farther west.

It was somewhere along Interstate 66 that I saw the name of a road that caught my attention.  Against the road sign’s standard green background, I read the white lettering of words— Dismal Hollow Road.  I wondered what the story was behind its naming?  

The road’s name might make a great title for a country song. I can imagine the lyrics—“ and that’s where she broke my heart, and my life fell apart, down on Dismal Hollow Road,” or  “ that’s where the revenuers broke my will and found my still, down on Dismal Hollow Road.”

That street name stuck with me as we connected with 81 headed south for Staunton.  The miles were clicking off, as we rolled up and down the hills taking in the appealing scenery of the world’s best artist. 

And somewhere along this route, I saw another sign that caught my eye.  It was homemade, staked into the ground, a white paint background with these handprinted words scrawled across the board— Jesus Come Soon.

Now, we really had the making for a country song—“Jesus Come Soon To Dismal Hollow Road.”  However,  my daydreaming was quickly drawn back into reality by the Commander Supreme as we approached the first exit.  

Remember, when your on a  road trip, in uncharted territory, with daylight a premium, it is critical to devote all of your attentional skills to the directions given by the Commander Supreme. Believe me I did, and thankfully, I made no turning errors.

We finally found Goshen.  

 Tucked back off Virginia Route 42, it took  bouncing on dusty gravel road beds,  driving across a lake dam, and marveling at the occasional deer before we made it to the base camp.  

Once there, Andrew was greeted by of all things—  a young lady.  She was a Boy Scout employee who helped him check in and then asked him if he was ready for the long hike to his troop’s camp site.  We said our goodbyes to Andrew, and left him with the ticks, chiggers, poison oak, and other creatures that might find him as fair game during the week.

Even though it was getting late, we decided to make the drive back to Richmond.  Thankfully, I managed to stay awake.  Partly because the words on those signs kept bouncing in my brain.

Lately, it feels like our world might be a  Dismal Hollow . The ever present reminders of 9-11, suicide bombers, excessive greed and forgotten integrity in our corporate boardrooms, child abductors, not to mention drought and wildfires. 

 With those concerns, I understand the urgency with the scribbled road sign words, “Jesus Come Soon.”  It’s like an SOS message, Jesus hurry up, get down here, and fix this mess on Dismal Hollow Road.

Truth be told, Jesus cruises by those signs everyday.  

He’s already down here. 

He is in our hearts. 

 Our challenge is to find him in our hearts.

The sooner we make this discovery the better.

Dismal Hollow Roads are not going anywhere, unless we commit our hearts to their repair.

Road sign in Warren County, Virginia photo not provided by Bill Pike

Author’s note: This piece was originally written on or about July 31, 2002. I recently revisited the piece and made a few tweaks. In a slightly different format, this was used as a devotional for the Outreach Sunday school class at Trinity UMC in Richmond, Virginia probably in August 2002.

Some, never get away

We were making good time.

The interstate was behind us.

Now, the car hugged two-lane state roads.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We had a good week. 

What makes a good week at the beach?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I see forests thick with trees and undergrowth. 

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

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

Towns are few. Intersections might have a gas station. 

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

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

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

My brain talks to me. 

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

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

My brain continues to drift. 

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

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

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

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

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

So church, how is your Flemish bond?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The non-traditional shaped signs were approved. 

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

Churches are steeped in traditions. 

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

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

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

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

But is there a deeper lesson here for churches?

I think the answer is yes. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Flemish bond brick pattern at Trinity UMC photo Bill Pike

Buying groceries, food insecurity

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

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

Not a good use of time

A long time ago, I can remember making a rest stop on Interstate 85. A snack and drink were also needed. But, I quickly learned putting some coins in the vending machine I had chosen was not going to happen. 

A really thoughtful person made the decision to break into the vending machine. Busted glass, bent metal were in abundance. As a result, no one was able to use this machine.

Disappointed, the road trip started again. 

As I drove, I thought—too bad the machine wasn’t equipped with mechanical arms. 

Whenever a vending machine is being tampered with for unlawful personal gain, these arms with large mechanical hands would quietly deploy from each side of the machine. The arms and hands would work collaboratively and bear hug the intruder. This unwise person would now be held until law enforcement could arrive.

Who knows, maybe the person who attacked the vending machine was desperate for food or money. Regardless of the person’s motivation, the decision to vandalize triggers a series of interruptions in routines for other people to respond to the mess. 

Maintenance personnel clean up the debris.   Management at the rest stop file a police report. A police officer inspects the site, adds to the report, and looks for clues. The company who owns the machine assesses the damage and determines if repairs can be made or if the machine is a total loss. And probably either the vending machine owner or the management of the rest site will be contacting their insurance company.

That’s a lot of post-incident disruption for one vending machine. But, the perpetrator wasn’t thinking about who would be impacted for the damage to the vending machine. 

During the weekend of June 4, 2021, at Trinity United Methodist Church, we had our own encounter with an intruder. 

For close to two years, we’ve had banners displayed on our grounds along Forest Avenue that proclaimed two statements:

  • No matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor.
  • All are children of God.

Someone, took exception to the “All are children of God” banner. This person took a can of red spray paint and painted over those words.

Damaged sign photo by Bill Pike

I took a photo, filed a report with our community officer from the police department, removed the damaged sign, checked the grounds for a tossed can of spray paint, and asked our communication specialist to order a new sign.

Again, I wish the limbs of the trees where the signs were displayed had been able to swoop down and grab the unskilled artist.

Sadly, vandalism like this takes place somewhere every day. I would wager the chances of our spray painter being apprehended are slim. 

Still, I am curious about who would take out his/her frustration on what seems to me to be a harmless wording on a banner.

I have written this before, but there is something about the cover of darkness that gives a person an ounce more of courage.Too bad the prankster’s temporary courage could not be converted into a good use of time—something productive instead of  property damage.

And yet, sometimes, something good can come from an unwanted intrusion.

A couple of days after this disappointment, our senior pastor shared an e-mail with me from one of our church neighbors. She and her daughter had noted the defaced banner. The neighbor went on to state how the words on both banners really resonated with each of them.

The neighbor was asking for permission not to replace the banner, but to place on the church lawn near the banner a parcel of miniature rainbow flags.

We accepted her offer of support. 

Within a week, her shipment of flags arrived. Our neighbor and her daughter put the flags in place. The flags look good on the lawn. They are a reassurance that kind hearts can still make a difference in a world with lots of challenges.

Flags from the mother and daughter photo by Bill Pike

I wonder what pushes a person to invest his/her time into busting up a vending machine or defacing a banner? I wonder if this person ever stops to think—hey, I’m not using my time wisely, or this isn’t my best thinking, something might go wrong, and I’ll be caught.

I know the answer. 

This isn’t because I have busted up a vending machine or defaced a banner.

It is because, my memory will not let me forget the stupidity of the moments in my life when I used time unproductively or was not thinking clearly. 

In those instances, I put myself and those who loved and cared for me on a dangerously slippery slope. For whatever reason, the good Lord, guardian angels, or parental prayers kept me safe.

We ordered a new banner. Thanks to the expertise of a church member, the banner is back in place.

And for the person who created this disruption, keep this in mind—sometimes the luck found in the courage of darkness runs out. 

And, I’ll take that a step further—this wasn’t a good use of your time, and if you’re interested in a career as an artist or painter, you might want to rethink that path.

But, this is my real hope for you. 

My hope is that some arms will gently embrace your heart, your soul, and help you to understand:  All, including yourself, are children of God.

Happy Trails Coach K

I would not trade anything for growing up in Burlington, North Carolina. I was lucky, blessed, fortunate. Burlington was sandwiched between Winston-Salem and Raleigh. 

In that stretch of miles through the Piedmont of the Old North State were the four universities that made up the heart of the Atlantic Coast Conference(ACC)—Wake Forest, N.C. State, North Carolina, and Duke. Slowly, this conference would develop into one of America’s hotbeds for men’s college basketball.

Nicknamed Tobacco Row, the stories of the players, coaches, and fans became legendary in the intensity of their rivalries. Perhaps, he didn’t know it on March 18, 1980, but Michael William Krzyzewski, Coach K, in his own unique way was going to add to those stories and rivalries when he was hired to coach the men’s basketball team at Duke University.

It took a while for the young man from Chicago, who played college basketball for Bobby Knight at Army, to find his footing at Duke and the ACC. At the end of his first four years, the impatient Duke alumni wanted Coach K’s head.

Despite the demands of alumni, Athletic Director, Tom Butters, did something remarkable. 

Instead of firing Coach K, Butters tore up his existing contract, and gave him an extension. That brazen decision changed the course of basketball at Duke for forever.

But, we all know that forever, doesn’t last forever. On June 2, 2021, we learned that Coach K planned to retire upon the conclusion of the 2021-22 basketball season.

Since the fourth grade, I have followed Duke basketball. 

That allegiance came courtesy of my fourth grade friend, John Huffman, whose father was a Duke graduate. I remember tagging along with the Huffman family for football and basketball games at Duke.

My parents were Duke fans too. As Methodists, they liked the strong affiliation the denomination had with the Duke Divinity School. Perhaps in their parental dreams, they held out hope that I might find the path to becoming a preacher. They could see me attending graduate school at Duke. Somehow, I sense God is relieved that didn’t happen.

As a young Duke fan, I was a poor sport. I would cry if they lost. I would really cry angrily if they lost to that team based in Chapel Hill. And yet somehow, in those furious tears, my father did teach me about sportsmanship.

Later, my wife, the Commander Supreme, had to revisit those sportsmanship lessons. No doubt this was needed. Especially,  when I attempted to watch a Duke basketball game on television with our children. Our son’s young genes were very similar to his father’s after a tough Duke loss.

In truth over the last several years, I have watched very few Duke games on television—even championship games. I don’t want to put myself through the anguish. I’m still capable of “chastising a the screen of an unresponsive television too vehemently.”

When Coach K’s retirement was officially announced much was written. During this upcoming season, even more words will be put in print. And, I’m sure, win or lose, this last season will be chronicled for a book or even a documentary.

Coach K would not know me from Adam. 

Yet, displayed on our basement wall, where I spend time writing are the following: a piece of hardwood floor from Cameron Indoor Stadium, a picture of Coach K, our son, and me from when our son attended basketball camp at Duke, and two framed letters from the coach. 

I have a third letter from him in my desk drawer. That letter deserves to be framed too.  After all he said: “Your letter was terrific.”

As much as I admire him and respect what he has accomplished, if given the opportunity, I would have told him to retire earlier.

I have no understanding of why he insisted on chasing the one and done players. Personally, I believe his desire to win betrayed his judgment.

Quietly, I thought to myself, why couldn’t he see this? 

From my inexperienced perspective, Coach K’s success had come from his ability to develop players over time. This was because his knowledge of the game and his ability to teach the game were unsurpassed.

Additionally, I also wondered why highly recruited players sometimes ended up transferring after a couple of years? I guess they wanted more playing time. But, were there other reasons?Does loyalty receive any consideration in these decisions?

And, I questioned his stubbornness. It appeared Coach K relied upon the same rotation of players even when that configuration didn’t seem to be working in games.

In truth, I too am loaded with stubborn imperfections. My flaws are questioned. I guess this is part of being human.

And to show you how little I know about basketball, I figured Johnny Dawkins or Tommy Amaker would be announced as the new head coach— not Jon Scheyer.

But, I think this handpicked selection of Scheyer by Coach K is another example of Coach K’s ability to think and analyze deeply.  He has exceptional psychological insights. Coach K contemplates all angles like a puzzle maker analyzing shapes for a precise, perfect fit.  

Personally, I like the selection of Scheyer. To me he holds something special. In 2010, he captained the Duke team that won the national championship. 

At the beginning of that season, not many experts or fans would have given this team much of a chance at winning a championship. But, they did.

 Who knows, someday, tactical historians of the game might conclude— that season, that team was Coach K at his absolute best.  Experience, hard work,  and a cohesive bonding of the player’s personalities had something to do with that team’s run—no one and done mentality was present.

I guess the Duke haters in the world are momentarily satisfied. Their venom will be resupplied once the new season begins in November. 

Oddsmakers in Las Vegas are probably already contemplating this team chances of winning the national championship.

But, in a blink, a layer of pressure was instantly installed over this team. I’m sure Coach K is already thinking about how to deflect this distraction. My hunch is he will tell them to go out and play and have fun. We all know that will be easier said than done.

But, at the end of the day, I think that is what Coach K did during his career as a player and coach. 

He played. 

He coached.

He had fun. 

He led with his heart. 

And most importantly in all his success, his heart had the capacity to build relationships.

Hard fought and heartfelt victories come from the building of relationships.

Coach K, thanks for sharing your heart with basketball.

But, I also think your heart gave us lessons beyond basketball. 

And, at the end of the trail that might be worth more than you will ever know. 

Author’s note:  This piece is dedicated to my father William Avery Pike, Sr. He was a good son, brother, husband, father, son-in-law, brother-in-law, grandfather, father-in-law, cousin, friend, and neighbor. His goodness came from his big, gentle, caring heart. I was lucky to have that heart for my father.

My father always there for me.

Bears, the Bible, Bullets

My wife’s brother-in-law, Art, is a patient man. 

Art is tolerant because he still allows me to fly fish with him. 

With great instructional insight, Art has attempted to make me comfortable with a fly rod. 

My clunkiness with a fly rod is based upon years of surf fishing in the Atlantic. I can heave the line of a surf rod for many yards. But, the fly rod, I have yet to master letting the rod do the casting.

A few years ago, I was fishing with Art in the Eastern Sierras just outside Mammoth Lakes. We were up early to fish a section of the San Joaquin River. 

In an old pickup truck, Art drove us off the main road into a section where the morning sun was just starting to angle in some light. Art spent a bit of time rechecking the fly rods, and then we walked toward the still sleeping San Joaquin.

Now, I don’t remember if either one of us caught any trout, but that’s ok. Sometimes fishing is more about the scenery than what decides to bite a fly.

But, I have thought about that excursion a few times. I have always wondered— if a bear had stopped by to chat, how would I have responded.

“Hey, Bill, I heard you’re visiting from the East Coast. Thought, I’d stop by and see how the trout were biting. If you caught any, I would like them for my breakfast. And by the way, if you have not caught any trout, I’ll give you a head start, you’ll need it since you are wearing those waders with the special boots to keep your toes dry. But, I’m going to have you for breakfast. If you’re planning to poke me with that flimsy fly rod, that won’t work. They are like tooth picks to me. And, I apologize, I forgot my manners. My name isn’t Booboo. Here in the Sierras, they call me the Mauler Hauler. I maul the fisherman and haul their carcass back to my den. Bill, you know that head start, I was talking about? If I were you, I’d get moving, I have a powerful appetite this morning.”

Now, luckily for me that daydream in the Sierras never happened. 

However, I did via a colleague at work stumble upon a bear story in of all places the Bible. Yes, that’s right. There is a bear story in the Bible. 

Now, before we go any further, I want to give you a warning. This isn’t one of those Bible stories that will fill your heart with joy.  Remember, I referenced bears. 

Anyway in 2 Kings Chapter 2, the prophet Elisha was out for a walk near the town of Bethel. According to the scripture, some boys came out of the town, and they picked at Elisha over his appearance. 

Elisha was bald, so the boys shouted out at him multiple times: “Get out of here baldy.”

For whatever reason, Elisha didn’t appreciate this taunting. In fact, Elisha was a bit peeved with their behavior.

Of course, these young fellows had no idea, they were provoking, a prophet. Elisha turned to glare at them, and at the same time he called down a curse on them in the name of the Lord.

In an instant, two bears came out of the woods. According to Biblical sources that day, the bears mauled forty-two of the boys.

Knowing that the bears had things under control, Elisha went on about his trek to Mount Carmel, and later he returned to Samaria.

Don’t you just love the Bible.

Two bears maul forty-two boys, and in Mark Chapter 10, we read:  People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them.When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them.”

Now, unfortunately, when the forty-two boys were mauled, Jesus had not been born. So, during the encounter with the bears for the mauled boys, I wonder who was on guardian angel duty? Or furthermore, who would have granted Elisha’s request for a curse to be implemented?

Seems like management up in heaven might have had some rules of engagement before issuing a curse that would allow two bears to maul forty-two boys.

It’s been a long, long time since Elisha was called “baldy.” Not always by bears, but people all over the world are mauled every day. Quite often, this is mostly done by other human beings who out of the blue snap and usually harm an innocent person.

At least, that’s how I would describe Aiden Leos, the six year old who was riding in the back seat of his mother’s car near Orange, California back on May 21. 

Aiden was in his booster seat, when he and his mother were victims of road rage. A person fired a gun into the back of his mother’s car. The bullet struck Aiden. He died from the wound.

People mauling people. Of course, this makes a lot of sense.

Five days later on May 26 in San Jose, California a mass shooting took place in a light rail yard. Ten people died including the perpetrator. 

More people mauling people, again this makes lots of sense.

According to police investigations, and reported by assorted media outlets, the perpetrator in San Jose used three semi-automatic handguns and fired 39 rounds. In a search of his home, officers found twelve more firearms, and another 25,000 rounds of ammunition. 

Deputy Barney Fife on the fictional Andy Griffith Show was allowed to carry one bullet in his buttoned shirt pocket. He was permitted to put the bullet in his firearm only during extreme emergencies. 

In America, it is sadly ridiculous what we have allowed ourselves to become. We are so far removed from Barney Fife’s single bullet. 

We don’t want to admit it, but no individual needs 25,000 rounds of ammunition in his/her home. This is mindless. I am not against freedom. But, I’m really struggling with how we continue down this disturbing path of senseless mauling of life with firearms.

Check this out if you need confirmation that we are on the wrong path— according to an April 16, 2021 article in Forbes Magazine, writer Jack Brewster, wrote:  In 2021, the U.S. is currently on pace for about as many Americans to die from gun violence as last year, with 5,415 killed so far

Think about that, so far in 2021, 5,415 people have been killed by a person using a firearm—what is wrong with us? We know this isn’t acceptable.

 Why are we so paralyzed? Why are we so numb to this senseless, senseless mauling of life toward each other? 

How have we become so far removed from kindness, respect, dignity?

Why is our mental health so unstable and unpredictable?

 Too frequently, our only solution to solve problems and our differences is a firearm—why?

What kind of person can lose control and purposely fire blindly into a vehicle and kill a six year old? 

I wonder if ancient words from James 1:19 were ever a part of that person’s life —My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this— everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.”

In our impatient America, what might we be like if were better listeners, if we more carefully thought about our responses when angry, and if we didn’t snap in a nanosecond by pulling a trigger?

Sorry, this isn’t just 2021.  I sense in my old brain that we human beings have always been maulers—we don’t value human life. 

Initially, whatever kindness and love that might have been placed in our hearts for lots of different reasons gets pushed aside—mauled by a dark evilness.

If we want to stop this firearm violence in America, then we need to understand those reasons that make a heart go bad.

And one of those reasons that hearts go bad is related to all of the divides present in America. We need to remove our blinders—we are still divided. 

These divides are not shrinking. Talk about a mauling, our division, is potentially the worse mauling America has ever faced.

Why are we so far removed from these castoff words: “I appeal to you, brothers and sisters,in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought.” 1 Corinthians 1:10

When I read about the senseless death of Aiden Leos, my heart is pierced.

And I’ll take that anguished piercing a few steps further, as I think about these words from Hebrews 13:5-6“For he has said, “I will never leave you or forsake you.”So we can say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper;I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?”

What a question—“What can anyone do to me?” 

Ask that question to the family of Aiden Leos, the ten families in San Jose, and the family who will be notified today that a loved one is dead from a bullet—what can anyone do to me?

 This is a mess— a vicious, repetitive, destructive mess.

In a mess like this, I must blame someone, so I’ll blame God for this trouble.

God is always an easy target.

But, who knows, maybe God has thrown up his hands and shouted out in frustration—“I’m done, I can’t get through, I’m not being heard, they don’t listen— I’m finished with these people.”

God isn’t responsible for this mess.

I, you, me, we, us are responsible.

How much longer can we allow the timid chambers in our hearts to be silently mauled by this unacceptable violence and division?

We know the answer—no longer.

In a scene from the movie The Shawshank Redemption, inmate Ellis Boyd “Red” Redding appears before the parole board. The words Red speaks to the board are painfully honest as he responds to a question about being rehabilitated, and whether he is sorry for his crime. 

Red states: “There’s not a day goes by I don’t feel regret. Not because I’m in here, or because you think I should. I look back on the way I was then, a young, stupid kid who committed that terrible crime. I wanna talk to him. I wanna try to talk some sense to him—tell him the way things are. But, I can’t. That kid’s long gone and this old man is all that is left. I gotta live with that.” (Frank Darabont, screenwriter The Shawshank Redemption)

I hope we can find a way to talk some sense into our country. 

Deep in our hearts, we know that the way things are—are not right. 

Not coming to our senses will only add to our list of regrets. A list that is already too long.

If we aren’t careful, it’s going to be too late.

And I hope and pray that our hearts will talk some sense into us before it is too late. 

Because everyone of our hearts knows this— Aiden Leos and everyone like him who died from the senseless pull of a trigger deserve better.

At peace in a car seat, a far cry from Aiden Leos. Photo by Bill Pike

Memorial Day 2021: Clandestine Operation in Daylight

The call came early on a spring morning. 

A question was posed.

The former Marine Corps Sergeant, who had served his country in Vietnam, wanted to know if I would be willing to participate in a clandestine operation. 

Briefly, he described the mission.

I told him he could count on my help.

Next, his mind pattered out the details, and I listened.

He ended the conversation with— I’ll be back in touch.

On the morning of Thursday, May 20, 2021 at zero seven thirty hours Operation Flagpole Swap began.

It was a beautiful May morning, bright sunshine, clear blue sky. A foreshadowing of summer heat was encroaching Richmond.

Along Forest Avenue, drivers of cars, trucks, and school busses with tires whirring on worn asphalt scurried toward their  destinations. 

In their hustle, most were oblivious to the Sergeant and his helper in the Veterans Memorial Garden on the front lawn of Trinity United Methodist Church.

Who knows, we might have been tough to spot among the faded azalea blooms and the green canopy of dogwoods.

The Sergeant and his loving bride had done the prep work. Somehow, the Sergeant, now in his mid-seventies had coaxed the old flagpole out of the ground. 

On a previous afternoon, with its concrete base still clinging to the tough aluminum, the flagpole had been carefully placed in the bed of the Sergeant’s pickup truck.

This morning, the Sergeant, as if preparing to lead his men into the dense undergrowth of a Vietnam jungle came prepared. Buckets, water,  bags of Quikrete, shovel, two levels, trash bag, new flagpole, and precise tools chosen for settling the refreshed base were all present and accounted for.

And yes, age, combined with some health skirmishes, had worn on the Sergeant. But, he still had his core, his drive, his determination, and most importantly, his commitment.

Silently, his mind worked. He barked no orders at me. I followed his patient cues.

In all my years of knowing the Sergeant, he has talked very little about his experiences in Vietnam. Even though I am curious, I respect his silence. Sometimes, memories are best left unpacked.

This morning the chatter ranged from family, to Baltimore where the Sergeant had been raised, and the three young men memorialized in this garden.

I knew just enough about the Sergeant’s military service to learn that he had keen eyesight. In fact, this whole clandestine operation was about his still perceptive eyes. 

The Sergeant had noticed that the current flagpole was barely peeking over the tops of the dogwood trees. He wanted to insure that the American flag would stand tall above those trees for many years to come.

Years ago, the Sergeant, another church member who served in the Army during Vietnam, and five volunteers restored this garden. We followed all of the church’s requirements in seeking approval. In following the formalities, we also promised to maintain the garden until our last day on earth.

This morning, we are following no protocols, no blessings, no permission, no recording of minutes for approval in a formal meeting, no Robert and his rules of order. No, on this May morning, we are clandestine in daylight following the eyes in the Sergeant’s heart.

On September 5, 1969, December 22, 1969, and February 13, 1970, the hearts for the Jinkins, Ranson, and Olzer families at Trinity United Methodist Church were changed forever. That’s when they lost their sons to the war in Vietnam. 

Marker in the Veterans Memorial Garden Trinity United Methodist Church

I have no clue how receiving that news must have felt for each family. Even strong hearts struggle to recover from losses like that. And the mind, the mind wants to forget. But, the hurt is too deep, the hurt can’t leave. Try as it might, the mind can’t bring itself to forget.

To be truthful that is why I am here this morning with my friend, the Sergeant. I don’t want to ever forget those fallen hearts.

The new flagpole was in place. 

The Quikrete was working properly. 

With a few gentle nudges from the Sergeant, the pole was level on all sides. Even though he didn’t show it, I know the eyes in the Sergeant’s heart were moist.

I imagine on Memorial Day there will be lots of moist eyes. 

Rightly or wrongly, America, and its wars have been good at making the families left behind cry.

Who knows maybe some day those demons deep inside us that provoke us into war will find peace. 

A peace that isn’t temporary, a peace that will stop the breaking of hearts, and the flowing of tears. 

Perhaps, that is why we honor the fallen because we continue to hope for that peace.

New flagpole in the Veterans Memorial Garden photos by Bill Pike