56, too early

The text message showed up on the evening of Saturday, November 23. Unfortunately, the words were a sad, out of the blue jolt. 

Back in the summer, a nice young couple, Phillip and Rachel, moved into the house beside us on our west side.  The text reported that Phillip’s mother had died.

She was 56. We all know this was way too early to jump up above. 

Yet, life has a way of giving us these unpredictable, unwanted, unfair intrusions, and those of us who are still hanging around have one question—why?

It is a small world. A few years ago, Phillip, his mother, younger siblings, and stepfather lived in the house beside us on our east side.

To make the world even smaller, our son and his wife purchased their first house from Phillip and his wife this past summer too.

We had lost track of Phillip when he graduated from high school. Eventually, his family moved out from next door.

I remember when Phillip was scouting the house on our west side that he wanted to purchase. He brought his mother by to take a look at it.

 I hadn’t seen Phillip and his mother in years. But, I could sense right away Phillip’s passion for returning to the neighborhood, and this was despite my gentle warning that the house would need lots of work. At the same time, I picked up his mother’s wholehearted support of him in the pursuit of the house.

Phillip’s zeal worked, their proposal was accepted. Throughout the summer and into the early fall—a flurry of frenzied activity took place just about every day. The house was being transformed in and out, and on some of those days—Phillip’s mother was present. 

Her presence was both physical and emotional support. Remodeling a tired house can wear a person down, and I suspect Phillip’s mother was just the right cheerleader in some of those moments.

The memorial service for Phillip’s mother took place on Tuesday, November 26. My wife and I planned to attend.

On Monday afternoon, I saw Phillip for just a minute as he was talking with another neighbor at the end of his driveway. I wanted to let him know that if he and Rachel needed anything, all they had to do was just call or knock on our door. While conversing with our neighbor, Phillip was full of tears and emotions. I knew Tuesday’s  memorial service would be tough for him and the family.

The afternoon of November 26 was a bonus day with the weather. A mild temperature, soft blue sky, and patches of color from the annual changing of the leaves filled out the landscape along Arthur Ashe Boulevard.

Inside the Sanctuary, the magnificent old wooden pews filled quickly. This was our first visit to St. Mark’s Episcopal Church.

The memorial service was constructed around eulogies, hymns, Episcopal liturgy, scripture, a homily, and communion.

I always admire when a family finds the courage to share their stories about a lost loved one. Those stories come straight from their hearts. And, I’ll go ahead and say, sometimes those insights are more powerful than the words of the presiding pastor.

For this service, there were three eulogists. 

Each was special, but Phillip’s words about his mother were as stunningly beautiful as his mother. Between his tears, quick gasps to catch a breath, and tiny pauses to attempt to steady himself, Phillip delivered an unforgettable tribute to his mother. It was the perfect blend of raw emotions, stories, and humor.

He captured everything about her. But, most important were the life lessons she shared with him. Those difficult lessons, those motherly conversations, her perspectives stuck to him. Clearly, Phillip was molded and shaped by her. I am certain those essential character guides for life will never depart him. 

In the homily, the pastor basically acknowledged he could not equal the words from the eulogists. But to his credit, he did two things exceptionally well. 

He carefully explained the communion protocols, and made clear that everyone— no matter our religious convictions was welcome to participate. 

And then at the very end of the service, the pastor thanked everyone in attendance. He noted this packed Sanctuary was a real tribute to Phillip’s mother and her family. Love had prevailed.

As long as I live, I will forever remember the closing sentence in his mother’s obituary in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. It stated:  “In memory of Cathleen, her family would be honored if you would be kind to someone who needs it.”

With Thanksgiving in my rearview mirror, and Christmas barreling down on me there could not be a more timely reminder. 

I just wonder how much better I might become as a person if I looked to be kind to someone in need beyond Thanksgiving and Christmas?

Clearly, I need to go and find out.

How about you?

No Business Going

On the morning of July 4, 2019, our neighbor, Barbara Teague, my wife, and I were headed to Lottsburg, Virginia.

Lottsburg is barely a dot on a Virginia map. It is located in Northumberland County up on Virginia’s beautiful Northern Neck.

We had been invited to the getaway home of Jay and David Miller to celebrate the Fourth of July. Barbara’s husband David was helping their youngest daughter and her husband with a cross country drive for a career move to California.

I had no business going to Lottsburg. My internal whine—I had too much to do. Around the house chores, and assorted distractions from my work assignments for my church and local school board were my excuses.

The last time we had traveled to Lottsburg was on a beautiful October Saturday. 

It was for the wedding of Jay and David. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a happier couple. Jay was beautiful. She beamed like that October sun. And David was handsome. His eyes sparkled like the sun reflecting off the waterfront Coan River in their backyard.

In truth, curiosity was quietly nudging me to make this trip. I had seen this section of the Northern Neck in its autumn splendor. I wondered how summer might transform its landscape.

Our drive was uneventful. Barbara is a good driver. Traffic was light.

The small towns and communities along the way were still in place. Some of their appearances were geared toward encouraging consumers to make seasonal summer purchases.

 Plots of land, farmed for generations were in their green mode. I’m guessing the farmers are hoping all of nature’s unpredictable conditions will conspire favorably upon their hard work and yield a bountiful harvest.

I sense the pace out here is slower. That would definitely be the case if you were traveling behind large farm equipment on a two-lane byway. But,  I can see why Jay and David were drawn to this remote quietness and less hectic commotion. 

Well, we arrived. Jay and David greeted us, and quickly introduced us to one of Jay’s childhood friends. She was here with her daughter and her daughter’s boyfriend.

Since the wedding, Jay and David had been busy with assorted projects for the house. One project was significant.

 A garage/storage building had been converted into a guest cottage. I could see Jay and David’s touches in the finished product. The space is now useful and comfortable. If they chose to showcase these improvements, Southern Living magazine would be the perfect place for this repurposing story.

Quite a spread was offered for lunch. After lunch, we eventually found our ways to the dock area and the converging waters of the Potomac River, the Coan River, and the Chesapeake Bay. 

Assorted water toys were available for floating. The water was just the right temperature for a tepid old man. A soft, sandy bottom was a perfect cushion for exploring. There was conversation bouncing off the water, and we kept our eyes on the sky too.

The sun peeked in and out, clouds gathered and departed. Rain looked like a certainty, but it truly never intruded.

As the afternoon moved on, we each found our spots for independence. In this peacefulness, Jay and David were working toward the dinner plans. David had a critical assignment—the making of homemade ice cream. 

A screened in porch off the back of the house was a good spot for chatting and prior to dinner, there was lots of chatter.

Everything about dinner worked to satisfy our appetites, and we all know that only a fool would turn down homemade ice cream on a muggy summer evening. The ice cream was perfect. It would quiet any craving sweet tooth.

Real estate agents preach—“location, location, location”—well, this evening we were in a perfect location for fireworks. As darkness continued to encroach, our eyes were drawn to the sky. No matter where we scanned north, east, west we saw fireworks. Even the next door neighbors provided a show too.

Those distant pops and booms of sparkling, glittering colors shimmered in the sky. Propelled to their optimum height, the hues and shades glimmered as they exploded into the thick, smoky air. 

Those choreographed images, brought satisfaction to the admirers back on earth. We were dazzled by the hang time of the fireworks before the embers streaked downward slowly burning out.

 And the finales were just what they should have been. 

Chaos ignited in rapid fire, sustained bursts, spewing a palette of colors into the darkness, and capturing wonder for all observers. And then, no matter where we looked, the shows were over. 

Selfishly, I thought to myself, I’m sitting on this back porch, no crowds and traffic to battle to get home. I could get use to this.

All that watching of fireworks can wear a person down, and my old body was asking for some sleep. 

On Friday morning, David and I were up early. We were driving back to Richmond. David had an important assignment. He was picking up their grandson to take back to Lottsburg. I was going home to mess with all of those things that were going to be my excuse for not traveling to Lottsburg.

David and I attempted to solve the world’s problems on the ride back. We weren’t successful. 

Last night taking in all of those firework displays made me think about freedom. I wonder if I really understand how lucky I have been in my 66 years of living. I wonder if I truly comprehend how much of what I enjoy pivots off the sacrifice and work of others. People who somehow never stopped pursuing freedom for our country.

Our country is in turmoil in so many ways. I wonder how much of our current struggles might be related to our loss of appreciation for freedom. I know at times, I am guilty,  I take freedom for granted. 

Taking freedom for granted isn’t acceptable. By doing this, I silence my voice. I prevent myself from the potential to make a difference in an American’s life who hasn’t experienced freedom.

I don’t think our forefathers want me to take freedom for granted. 

That stance only weakens the future. 

Every new sunrise brings hope.

In that hope is opportunity.

The question for me is how will I use that opportunity to advance freedom for those who haven’t had my path of privilege?

Clearly, I have no business pushing that opportunity to the side.

"Just Calm Down"

It was good advice. 

I heard the wife say to her husband “just calm down.” They were leaving the aisles of the electrical department in a big box hardware store on a fall Sunday afternoon.

Since October, we have been moving into the time of the year when retailers work consumers into a frenzy.

Days before Halloween, some ginormous retailers without a blink rollout their Christmas displays. This move agitates me. I must remember “just calm down.”

Next, with Thanksgiving on the horizon, advertising related to Christmas shopping is popping up on television. My old brain senses these ads are running much earlier.

 By the time Christmas arrives, these ads will have a repetitive nuisance factor like political ads. This pre-Christmas advertising will make me bonkers. Thank goodness for the mute button on the remote control. “Just calm down.”

Early in November, my wife told me that a local radio station had started playing Christmas music. I love Christmas music, but it was November. I even heard Christmas music being played in the big box hardware store. Now for sure, I am approaching the edge of madness. “Just calm down.”

This early rushing of Christmas drives me crazy. Why all of this rush, rush, rush to thrust Christmas upon us? 

I know the answer, it is all about sales, sales, sales. 

Even at our church the staff is jostled into a somewhat controlled chaos. Planning Advent and Christmas events, some new, some traditional is coming down to the final details. 

Will we be ready? What is our communication plan? Can we give some of those very predictable Advent and Christmas traditions a new twist, a new angle? Can we offer something for everyone?

We started work on our Advent devotional book in the middle of the summer. 

You know Richmond summers— 90 plus degree days are common. Bermuda highs lock down off the North Carolina coast holding the heat in place. The humidity created is as miserable as a combination of Scrooge and the Grinch. Why don’t we work on this book in the middle of winter instead?

Why does this pre-Christmas lunacy do this to me?

The answer is quite simple—I let it.

Every Christmas, I am internally very well intentioned in my self-talk. But, I let the beast, the noise, the roar consume me. I fail.

I wonder what God thinks about all of this hoopla? 

I wonder if he is able to “just calm down”?

Williamsburg Isn’t Flat

A long hill on South English Street on the way back to the finish line.

Around midday on Wednesday, November 20, I left Richmond.  I was driving east to Williamsburg where I would be  attending the Virginia School Boards Association(VSBA) annual convention.

In October of 2018, I had been selected to fill out a school board term for the Henrico County School Board. This 14 month appointment has zipped by me. Hard to believe that I’m attending my second VSBA convention.

This is a good event for Virginia’s school boards, their superintendents, and an assortment of local school board leaders. The keynote speakers and seminars offered are exceptional. Chances are those in attendance will leave with some practical ideas and solutions.

Even though I had 31 years of experience in working with schools in Virginia, I felt a bit overwhelmed at last year’s convention as a rookie board member. This year, I had a better sense of what to expect, plus I would be representing our board as a delegate at the official business meeting of the VSBA.

The opening session on Wednesday afternoon featured Dr. Luvelle Brown, Superintendent, Ithaca City School District in New York. Dr. Brown focused his remarks on equity, but the highlight for me was the student panel who he interacted with. Five high school students from around Virginia shared their observations related toward equity and other important topics like—safety.

Now a confession here, I missed the presentation of Dr. Tim Hodges on Thursday morning. But, I had an excused absence, I ran in the 16th Annual 5K Walk/Run. 

By the time I got cleaned up and grabbed some breakfast, I was back in time for the two seminars I had charted out to attend. I heard Dr. Billy Haun, Executive Director, of the Virginia High School League, attempt to look into the future of high school athletics during the next five years. I learned that no matter the size and location of our school systems, we are all facing similar athletic challenges.

Next, I attended Transforming A High Poverty School Division:  Our Students Don’t Have Time To Wait. Dr. Zeb Talley, Superintendent for Martinsville City Schools, and key leaders from his staff told their story about moving their schools from being non-accredited to accredited. This seminar was outstanding because the presenters captured the challenges they faced while charting their practical approach for turning a dire situation around.

The business meeting of the VSBA was billed as advertised. Unfortunately, the technology gremlins foiled the voting system, so we had to vote the old fashioned way—we held up hand fans. There was interesting discussion on some of the legislative proposals too.

Friday morning came quick with a nice breakfast from the Virginia Lottery, the VSBA’s new president took over the leadership for this session, and then the keynote, Dr. Steve Constantino, was center stage. Dr. Constantino is the real deal. An experienced educator, and a superb storyteller, Dr. Constantino made us laugh, think, and tear up a bit.

For years, I have been one of those crazy people who enjoys going for an early morning run. So running the 5K on Thursday morning was something I was looking forward to. 

Last year, when I ran this 5K, I was fooled by the course. I thought Williamsburg’s terrain out here on the edge of the coastal plain would be flat. But this course, an out and back one on South English Street had some hills, long hills.

And that is ok, because life isn’t perfectly flat, and neither is the work done on a daily basis by public educators. The work of educators is like those hills— up and down. We have our up moments when everything comes together and a student finds success. And then we have those down moments too, when no matter what we try success is absent.

At this very moment in time, I think public educators are under more scrutiny and pressure than maybe in the history of our profession. We face many challenges and obstacles. We are asked to do more and more for societal issues that our students bring with them. Quite simply, school work is tough work, and there are no easy places to work anymore.

In all of this, I worry about our morale in these challenging times. One difficult situation can consume a teacher, a principal, a superintendent, and a school board. Honestly, a difficult set of circumstances can make an educator question—why am I in this profession?

 That is why it is important for everyone in a school building and a school system to look out for their mental and physical health. I can’t tell you how many times my head was cleared of school clutter by taking an early morning run.

On Thursday morning as I turtled down South English Street, the crisp fall air refreshed me, the quietness of the landscape relaxed me, and the hues of the season colored my mind in wonder.

I’m sure everyone who attended the convention left with takeaways, but as you plot out your return to your school systems be sure to carve out time for yourself. Failure to neglect yourself isn’t acceptable.

As I sat at the breakfast table on Friday morning, pings of conversation caught my attention.

In one hug between two former colleagues, I heard these words about their collaborative work—“we overcame a lot.”

That embrace and the comment was a takeaway moment for me. 

Our challenges in public education hinge on our capacity to build relationships. 

Go ahead, name the issue that robs your sleep, that makes you consume mass quantities of an antacid, and makes your want to hide in your office. 

It doesn’t matter what you named, if you can build a relationship, you just created hope. 

Hope is always worth pursuing because hope positions you to be able to overcome what you face.

Yes, the 5K course on South English Street wasn’t flat. It had hills.

Why was I able to overcome those hills? It was pretty simple—my internal relationship with myself willed me.

Just imagine what you will be able to overcome when you create relationships beyond yourself.

Don’t wait. 

Go build relationships. 

Remember, a student is counting on you.

Thanksgiving Trouble

Last Thanksgiving, my wife and I spent Thanksgiving Day  near Hillsborough, North Carolina at the home of my cousin David and his wife Rhonda. 

This was a Pike family gathering, and the first time in many years that we had been away from Richmond for Thanksgiving.

In my youth, the Pikes always gathered in Greensboro. The family of eleven children started by my grandparents is now down to one 80 year old uncle.

 Sustaining these family gatherings has fallen on the shoulders of my cousins. So far, no one has wavered. 

Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, and the Fourth of July are still on our yearly calendars. I guess our parents instilled in us the importance of gathering, sharing food, and fellowship.

At those Greensboro Thanksgivings, all of the food was homemade. Repeat, all of the food was homemade. That doesn’t always hold true today.

My taste buds still recall that homemade goodness along with all of the tempting aromas in Aunt Evelyn’s kitchen. 

And while I always enjoy pumpkin pie, my favorite Thanksgiving dessert was persimmon pudding. 

It is made with wild, frost bitten, sun ripe persimmons, not the large oriental persimmons found in grocery stores. In the South, any wild fruit can satisfy the taste buds when mixed with large amounts of sugar, eggs, sweet milk, cinnamon, and flour.

But a word of caution about wild grown persimmons, never eat an unripe one. Even Huckleberry Finn knew this. It is an experience your mouth will never forget. Eating an unripe persimmon probably would cure anyone who consistently utters foul language.

Last year, as our Thanksgiving gathering came to a close, my wife and I did something we have never done before—we went shopping. 

Never in my 66 years of living have I been shopping on Thanksgiving afternoon, and I have never been shopping on what we now call Black Friday.

Let me confirm for you, I will never, and I know I should never say never, but I’m going to say it— I will never go shopping again on Thanksgiving.

Perhaps, you are wondering, Bill, why will you never go shopping again on Thanksgiving? 

My answer is very simple—the cashier who checked us out.

In a very pleasant conversation with him, we learned that his Thanksgiving meal would not take place until after the store had closed, and that was still hours away.

It hit me that every employee in the store was probably in the same set of circumstances, and for that matter the same was true for every retail worker across America on Thanksgiving.

This cashier and his fellow employees should be at home, and so should I.

What was I thinking? 

How did I lose my way?

How did I lose my focus?

It was way back in 1863 when Abraham Lincoln established a federal holiday proclaiming:  “Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.” (Wiki)

 I’m pretty sure there is no way Honest Abe could have predicted that his simple day for giving thanks would become dominated by retailers. 

But, I sadly concede it has.

I wonder if God has conceded this too?

I’m sure God has a team of data miners up in the blue yonder who could chart for him  the starting point and the history of this surge in retail madness.

But, God doesn’t need his data miners to affirm what he can already see.

I would think paradigm shifts like this make God a restless sleeper. 

New wrinkles crop up on his time worn face.

Probably his antacid intake is at an all time high.

His random headaches have become migraines.

Staff meetings with his leadership team are tense.

And conversations with his only son require a box of Kleenex.

In those conversations, God beats himself up—why didn’t I see this trend coming, how could I let this happen, I must be losing my touch, why wasn’t I proactive, why was I so blind?

Enough God—stop beating yourself up— enough.

It is our question to ask, when are we going to say enough to all of those ways that distract us at Thanksgiving, and for that matter Christmas too?

Proverbs 5:21 states:  “For your ways are in full view of the Lord, and he examines all your paths.”

Perhaps last Thanksgiving, through the cashier God was nudging me to examine my ways, my paths.

That cashier’s story changed my perspective.

Maybe that tiny conversation with the cashier can change the Thanksgiving thinking of others too.

In your parade, don’t forget to laugh!

Friday, November 1 was a busy day.

At nine that morning, I met Joe Andrews at Trinity UMC for a meeting with a gutter contractor. 

Next, I was scheduled to be at J. R. Tucker High School for a groundbreaking ceremony.

Then back to Trinity for some final preps for a one o’clock funeral. We lost a long time member, and a really sweet lady, Rachel Habel. This prep involved a skirmish with the technology gods to get a slide show to cooperate.

By 12:25, I was scrambling out of Trinity heading to the other side of the county for another groundbreaking ceremony at Highland Springs High School.

Once this ceremony was over, I hustled back to Trinity. When the funeral reception was finished in the Welcome Center, we had to make sure the Sanctuary and Welcome Center were ready for a 4:30 wedding rehearsal.

With the help of the ushers from the funeral, and Trinity office manager, Paula Cadden, both areas were put back in shape.

My school board hat was put on again for my next Friday afternoon assignment, the Douglas Freeman High School Homecoming Parade.

If you know me at all, being in the limelight is not my comfort zone. Riding in a convertible, waving and smiling at strangers, while occasionally tossing candy toward children along the route is not my strong suit. But, there I was.

Our neighbor’s, Dan and Nancy Heller, had kindly agreed to let their maroon Mustang convertible be my ride for the event. Around 4:50, Dan drove me over to the staging area in the parking lot of the newly renovated Tuckahoe Middle School. We picked up the sign for the car, secured it to the passenger side, and positioned the car into our #4 slot.

Now, the last time I was in a homecoming parade was on October 9, 1970 in my hometown, Burlington, North Carolina.

My best friend, John Huffman, was escorting our classmate, Maggie Runyon, for some organization at Walter Williams High School. Maggie secured a  Cadillac convertible for me to drive down Main Street. The Caddie was like a battleship. I’m thankful no parallel parking was required.

Now, here comes the confession. I was a senior in high school. But, I had not completed all of the requirements for having an official North Carolina driver’s license.

I drove that Caddie down Main Street past countless police officers. Luckily for me, there were no opportunities for a fender bender. But, there was one challenge near the end of the parade route.

My mother who happened to work in one of the office buildings along Main Street had stepped outside for a few minutes with co-workers to watch the parade. When my mother saw me behind the wheel, I thought her eyes were going to pop out of her head.  

Thankfully, when I arrived home, my mother and father did not kill me. Clearly, they would have been within their rights to do so. 

This can be verified in the trusted manual,  the Parental Guide For Attempting To Raise Teenagers, Chapter 42, page 3,499, section 220, citation 27 states: “Parents do have permission to harm a teenage son who drives a convertible Cadillac in a homecoming parade without the proper driving credentials from the state of residence.”

Now, in truth during my ride along the parade route on Three Chopt Road on this beautiful November afternoon, I was nervous. 

I could envision a police car from Burlington pulling in behind the Mustang with its blue lights flashing. Headlines scanned through my brain—School Board Member Apprehended In Homecoming Parade—North Carolina Police Officers Serve A 49 Year Old Warrant.

Luckily that didn’t happen, but I reckon if Bernard P. Fife was still around, I would have reason to keep looking over my shoulder.

I suspect the only people who might have been upset with me in the homecoming parade were the parents of young children. 

I gently tossed  pieces of candy toward them. I’m sure this was a big hit with the parents since Halloween had been the night before. But, I could reason an alternate take with the candy tossing— it might render future business for local dentists.

Well, the parade route gradually came to an end. 

We were directed into the parking lot beside the high school. A nice lady clipped the sign off the passenger side door. Dan parked the Mustang in an adjoining lot. We walked over to Three Chopt Road and watched the remainder of the parade.

We found our wives. They had been joined by our son, Andrew his wife, Kathryn, and my little Miss Mess, their daughter, Josie.

The parade ended. I had been lucky. Even though there had been 49 years between my parade appearances, the fall weather was perfect. As we know, this parade we are in everyday—called life isn’t always perfect.

Scan the headlines from your preferred news feed for a few seconds, and you will find an abundance of our imperfections. Most of those headlines worry me and hurt my old heart.

In the fall of 1979, I was an English teacher at Hermitage High School. I had lots of prep to do everyday to be ready for my parade of sophomore and junior students. The American literature book for the junior students contained some of the work of writer James Thurber.

Mr. Thurber was a gifted writer—he made me laugh.

I always loved this quote from Mr. Thurber:  “Humor is emotional chaos remembered in tranquility.”

In the emotional chaos of your parade of life, I encourage you to find those moments of tranquility, find that humor, and laugh.

Laugh at your parade for a few seconds. Go ahead, your heart will appreciate it.

After all, Ecclesiastes 3:4 granted authorization: “a time to laugh.”

Perhaps, that is why God is still around—in all of his emotional chaos, I suspect sometimes— He laughs.

Smothered? Try up.

On the morning of Sunday, October 27, our 18 month old grandson was up early. Even for an early riser like me, Hudson was up way too early. Try 4:45, I fear he has his grandfather’s internal alarm clock.

His patient mother tumbled downstairs with him, and his father wasn’t too far behind. We all just kind of looked at Hudson with puzzled, bewildered expressions. I wondered out loud to his parents—“Probably when he is a teenager, you will not be able to pry him out of bed.”

Hudson wanted to go outside. It was raining. Sunrise was nowhere to be found. He was persistent. But, we found a temporary distraction —Dora The Explorer.

One of Hudson’s favorite words is up. Dora didn’t disappoint. In one of the scenes, we heard her command in Spanish “arriba, arriba.” 

During this October weekend, I had the opportunity to comply with Hudson’s “up” command countless times. Made me wonder about people and all the things up can mean for us.

Are you going up the ladder?  Can you keep up with the pace?

How do you keep up with your schedule? Are things looking up for you? Can you pick your toys up? What are you up to? Look up at that sky.

I’m guessing at times all of us struggle a bit to keep our spirits up. We all have challenges along the way. Sometimes, those challenges wear us down.

During the spring semester of my senior year of college, I did my student teaching at Aycock Junior High School in Greensboro, North Carolina. That was 44 years ago! My cooperating teacher, Wallace Pegram, told me early on some pedagogical wisdom—“there is a lot of psychology in teaching.”

He was correct. Not only was there a lot of psychology in teaching, there is a lot of psychology in life.

Relationships involve lots of psychology too.

Relationships will experience ups and downs, good days, lousy days. 

There will be days when a person in a relationship might feel smothered, trapped. Days when separation is needed. Days when space is needed.

A bit of separation and space in a smothering relationship might have some benefits.

It gives the person who is feeling smothered, overwhelmed, and with a touch of uncertainty a chance to think, reflect, assess, and evaluate.

Clearly,  I am no psychologist. But, I wonder in assessing a relationship if it might be a help if we consider the following:

Sometimes we must walk backward to learn how to move forward.

What might be gained by looking back? 

When we take an extended view in that rear view mirror is it possible that we might rediscover key turning points that were overlooked or totally ignored? Might those missed details form a solution or a path for moving forward?

Oh, wouldn’t it be nice if figuring out a relationship was as simple and innocent as Hudson’s request—“up.”

Hudson’s tiny request really comes down to listening.

Can that person who feels smothered in a relationship, who needs a bit of separation and space find a set of non-judgmental ears to hear them out?

The short answer is probably yes. But finding that person who can listen without judging is all about timing. 

We move so fast today that we might fail to take the split second to really, really hear the ask from that smothered person.

Way up there in that blue yonder are a couple of guys whose ears never tire. I lean on them everyday. 

The answer to my prayers might not be delivered in a split second, but I sense those ears in that blue yonder hear my itty-bitty voice. Even in all the chaos down on earth.

Those same ears can hear the person who feels smothered.

At some point in his life, our early riser, Hudson, might feel smothered.

I hope he remembers— “up.”

That Box of Chocolates

Forrest Gump had it right when he quoted his momma:  “Life is like a box of chocolates you never know what you are going to get.”

Perhaps that quote is a very accurate view about life. Try as we might to see into our futures— we never really know what life will bring us.

In 1975, six young men graduated from college. As different as they were from their Maryland, North Carolina, and Florida upbringings something clicked.

 Somehow, during the last 44 years, they have maintained and nurtured their friendships.

 Weddings, births of children, divorces, coming out, passing of parents, successful careers, arrival of grandchildren, and talking about  all of their ups and downs have always been shared. Shared at an annual gathering when calendars match and a location is secured for a weekend.

At this stage in my life, if I was hanging by my last pinkie, I know one of my pals would be there for me. And, I would do the same for them.

Recently, one of my college pals and his wife experienced the tragedy no parent wants. And frankly, the experience that no parent deserves—the loss of a child.

In this case, their youngest son was gunned down. This occurred after spending a delightful boat outing on a quiet lake in Arizona with his wife who is expecting their first child. 

We may never know why an employee at the marina pulled the trigger.  But, I know this, his decision was reckless—senseless, and not required.

In those fast moving seconds, lives were forever altered.

It took days for courage to nudge my heart in reaching out to my pal and his wife. 

What do you say? 

In this uncharted territory, maybe it isn’t what I say as a friend, but how I listen to my devastated pal.

Late in the summer, a memorial service was held for their son. 

In my careers, I’ve attended a lot of funeral services. But, I don’t think I have ever witnessed such an outpouring of love in the celebration of a person’s life as was shown for my pal’s son. It was incredible.

But the courage of that afternoon came from my pal’s wife. 

At the appropriate time in the service, she spoke as only a mother can. Her words were exactly what they should have been—laughter, tears, honesty, and her love.

From a distance, I knew about the ups and downs of their son’s life. He struggled. You name it—the struggles confronted him.

Yet, somehow, someway, he beat those struggles. It was a transformation. A transformation like none I have ever witnessed.

The changing of his life created an opportunity for him to transform other lives. His life’s passion, his drive, energy, and determination became transforming the lives of parents and their children.

He was very, very, very good at this. He made a lasting impact on the families. He transformed not only their lives, but the lives of people around him as well.

And that might be the real question for me in the aftermath of this horrible, horrible tragedy. 

How might this senseless loss be used to transform me?

How might I use me to change this thinking in our society—  pulling the trigger of a firearm should not always be the solution to a problem.

Our annual gathering this fall was at Smith Mountain Lake in what I consider the best month of the year—October.

We talked. We laughed. We cried. We shared. We remembered. We hugged. We loved.

And deep inside each of us, “why” was pinging and ricocheting—why, why, why? Why did such a horrible, awful tragedy occur?

That piece of chocolate in the box that brings lives to an abrupt end due to the gun violence in our country needs to be forever tossed out.

Our country desperately needs to experience a transformation for the good.

That struggle for transformation will depend upon our capacity to reshape our hearts. Not only our hearts, but also the hearts we encounter on a daily basis.

This will require building relationships in an emotional territory.

That will not be easy. 

But, our hearts can’t afford not to try.

Life, Where Is My Faith?

Read Luke 8:22-25

Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you.

1 Peter 5:7

Thought For The Day

Worries and anxieties can be less stressful with faith and trust.

Since August 8, 2010, I silently read the following words every morning—“In your strength, enable us to drop our burdens and set aside our anxiety about life.” 

Those sixteen words were a part of the opening prayer printed in our Sunday morning worship bulletin at my church. I carried the bulletin home. I placed it with my prayer lists in my Bible. 

I consider myself to be a natural born worrier. The words in the prayer spoke to me. And despite my devotion in reading that sentence every morning, I still worry. I have failed to drop my burdens and set aside life’s anxiety.

Why is this?

For me, the answer is grounded in trust. Do I trust God and Jesus to guide me through my life’s worries? Despite citing numerous examples where their strength supported me, my complete trust is absent.

Recently, I helped a friend load a grill on to his truck. What I thought would be a brief task, turned into a long conversation about his worries. I listened. His concerns touched every part of his life. They were significant. But, I heard in his words of worry this affirmation—my friend’s complete trust in God.

I am much like the disciples in the storm tossed boat when Jesus asked them—“Where is your faith?”

I need to answer that question.

Prayer:  Father of us all, to drop our burdens and anxieties, help us to find our faith and trust in you. Amen

Prayer Focus: Family, friends, neighbors and strangers who are weighted with worry.

#79 “words flowing”

In England on October 9, 1940, Winston Churchill was elected as the leader of the Conservative Party. Adolf Hitler was creating problems for Jews in the occupied Netherlands.  And in Liverpool, England John Winston Lennon was born. 

At the age of 24, John and his bandmates Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr would have their own invasion and revolution when they landed in America on February 7,1964. 

The band, named the Beatles, had already created chaos and hysteria in their homeland with their music. Now, it would be America’s time to experience that same bedlam and mania.

For the next sixteen years, John Lennon would experience all of the ups and downs of becoming a rock star, a public figure who could create friction with his views and activism. Whether, you were a fan of the music or not, we all know that John’s life ended much to soon at the age of 40. 

In 1964, I was in the fifth grade at Hillcrest Elementary School in Burlington, North Carolina. I too became caught up in the frenzy of Beatlemania. Something about their sound resonated with me. I became a dedicated fan.

I’m not sure that I had a favorite Beatle, but as they evolved, the lyrics to some of their songs stuck to me. While song writing credits were printed on the orange and yellow Capitol Records label as John Lennon and Paul McCartney, I could sense when a song had been birthed by John.

“I’m A Loser” from the Beatles’ 65 album was one of the first to make me think a bit. A simple song about a boy losing his best girl. I love the lines from the chorus—“I’m a loser, I’m a loser, and I’m not what I appear to be.” I wonder how many times in my growing up and even as an adult I felt like a “loser.” 

Today, we know that mental health is a significant issue in our country. How many people walking around us each day might be captured by these words from “I’m A Loser”:  “Although I laugh and I act like a clown, beneath this mask I am wearing a frown.”

The title song to their second movie—Help! caught my attention too. I could easily quote the entire song. To get through life, we all need help. Think about this insightful observation:

      And now my life has changed in oh so many ways

      My independence seems to vanish in the haze

      But every now and then I feel so insecure

      I know that I just need you like I’ve never done before

I’m 66 years old. I think about how my life changes everyday. Where is my independence? Will I continue to lose more of it as I age? When do I feel insecure? Who is going to guide me through the haze of my future insecurities? I wonder what was churning through young Mr. Lennon’s mind at the time.

With the release of the Rubber Soul album, the Beatles were laying the groundwork for their recording future. The album contains many nuggets, but “In My Life” is a real heart tugger. Here is the last stanza:

Though I know I’ll never lose affection

For people and things that went before

I know I’ll often stop and think about them

In my life I love you more

I remember the lyrics for “In My Life” appearing in my high school yearbook in 1971.  That was the year I somehow managed to eek out of high school. But, the song makes me reflect. How often is my daily routine politely interrupted by a name, a face, a memory? Do I pause and think about those people? Have I lost affection for their molding and shaping my life?

But, it was another song written during the Rubber Soul time frame that really caught my attention—“Nowhere Man.” 

A long time ago, a friend told me that a pastor played this song as a part of a sermon for his congregation in Raleigh, North Carolina. I wonder what ran through the minds of the congregation. Maybe, the older members thought their pastor was losing his marbles, but the youth in attendance were probably pleasantly surprised.

“Doesn’t have a point of view, knows not where he’s going to, isn’t he a bit like you and me?” We all have points of view about life. And, it is difficult at times to maybe know where we are headed with our views and ambitions. But, the question he asks really is the kicker. How similar are we at times to “nowhere man”?

Two more lines naw at me—“He’s as blind as he can be, just sees what he wants to see.” How many times has that been me? Just seeing what I want to see as it pertains to me, and ignoring an opportunity to help out a “nowhere man?”

John Lennon took us on whimsical word journeys too. “Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite,” “I Am The Walrus,” “Hey Bulldog,” and “Mean Mr. Mustard” come to mind.

He could be raw with the emotional “Yer Blues” or “Don’t Let Me Down” and also as gentle as a breeze with “Julia”—“Julia, seashell eyes, windy smile, calls me, so I sing a song of love for Julia”.

Religion from time to time created an uneasy tension between Lennon and the public. In 1966, he made the comment about the Beatles being more popular than Jesus. That set off a fire storm. In protest, Beatles records were burned, and radio station dropped them from playlist rotations. 

Three years later, the single “The Ballad of John and Yoko” created a stir with these lines—“Christ you know it’s not easy, you know how hard it can be, the way things are going, they’re going to crucify me.” 

Yet, despite these agitations, Lennon still wrote songs with a grounding in “love”.

Gradually, the undertow of personality conflicts, management quarrels, and an assortment of challenges, wore the Beatles down. The smiles for publicity photos were gone, and the breakup occurred. 

For a period of time, I eagerly followed their solo careers. Lennon’s lyrics continued to resonate with me. Songs like “Love,” “Crippled Inside,” and “Watching The Wheels” had lines that made me ponder my own outlook.

By now, you might be thinking to yourself, Bill, how could you not reference “All You Need Is Love” or “Revolution” or “Imagine” or, or, or? 

Well, I let you grapple with selecting your own personal John Lennon playlist. The depth of his catalog is impressive. For this piece, I attempted to focus on a few songs that for good or bad stuck to me.

And, as I work to bring this piece to closure, I’ll reference the song “Across The Universe”. This song appeared on the Let It Be album. Originally, it was on a compilation album of assorted artist for the benefit of the World Wildlife Fund.

John had a very interesting observation about “Across The Universe” in a 1970 interview with Rolling Stone

Lennon referred to the song as perhaps the best, most poetic lyric he ever wrote: “It’s one of the best lyrics I’ve written. In fact, it could be the best. It’s good poetry, or whatever you call it, without chewing it. See, the ones I like are the ones that stand as words, without melody. They don’t have to have any melody, like a poem, you can read them.”[5]

I agree with his assessment. Here is a sample from the opening verse:

“Words are flowing out like endless rain into a paper cup. They slither while they pass, they slip away across the universe. Pools of sorrow waves of joy are drifting through my opened mind, possessing and caressing me.”

Today, Wednesday, October 9, 2019 would have been year 79 for John Lennon.

Sadly, an assailant’s mental health and a firearm ended John’s life. Perhaps, even more heartbreaking is 39 years after his death, in America every day mental health and firearms are still robbing people of life. 

Like all of us, John Lennon, had his imperfections. 

Yet despite these challenges, John found a way to put words on paper. Words that captured his feelings, his emotions, and his experiences. His lyrics did “ flow out to us like endless rain into a paper cup”.

I’m thankful that paper cup full of lyrics was shared.