Day Five: Vienna, forget the coffee

Gray skies and raindrops greeted our shore excursion into Vienna, Austria. The good news— the rain wasn’t coming down in buckets, and the temperature was tolerable.

True to form, our tour guides took control on the ride into the city pointing out landmarks, and prepping us for our walking tour.

My first impression about Vienna is its size. Sources indicate a population close to two million people. Some round that out to 2.9 million in the metropolitan area.

But despite its size, Vienna has all the visual nuggets and history an old North Carolina raised boy could appreciate.

Our first landmark was the Hofburg Palace. The building’s construction started in the 13th century with multiple additions and renovations along the way. Today, the building is the residence and office for the President of Austria.

One section of the Hofburg Palace (photo by Bill Pike)

The exterior architecture is impressive. But, what caught my eye was a domed ceiling in one of the archways.

Domed ceiling in archway at the Hofburg Palace
(Photo by Bill Pike)

Later we returned to the Hofburg to the Imperial Treasury to view the crowned jewels. I can only begin to imagine the craftsmanship and the tedious work that went into these creations.

Our guide directed us to St. Stephen’s Cathedral with a word of caution—pickpockets. So before entering the packed church, we all completed a quick assessment of our essential valuables.

The towers of the cathedral have long been a cherished part of the Vienna skyline, and yes, it is ancient—1137 was its groundbreaking. And with lots of old things, there has been lots of wear and tear over the centuries, but even if you aren’t a big fan of church buildings, you must take a gander at the interior.

Interior St. Stephen’s Cathedral
(Photo by Bill Pike)

From the cathedral we walked back into the Stephansplatz square intent on finding one of the many highly recommended coffee cafes that the Viking staff and tour guides had suggested. We found a couple of them, but they were packed and the lines were long.

So, we walked back into the square and found a place who had covered seating outside its entrance.

Now, I’m not a coffee aficionado. When I was a kid, I’d fix a cup of coffee, and add what seemed like a pint of whole milk and at least a pound of sugar, and it tasted pretty good. The aroma of coffee is very tempting, but I’m still a coffee abstainer.

But, at this cafe, my wife and I found something better—Italian hot chocolate with fresh cream. I would go back to Vienna for another slurp of this divine creation. Add to it a perfect piece of apple strudel, and I would die a happy man.

Cardiologist delight (Photo by Betsy Pike)

After that nourishment, we did some more exploring, and then we had a meeting of the minds, and we each went in separate directions.

Our daughter, Elizabeth, in college had taken multiple classes in art history, and she wanted to visit the Belvedere. This is where an artist she admires, Gustav Klimt, has his most famous work, The Kiss, on display.

Luckily, Elizabeth had good navigational skills, and we made the long walk to the Belvedere. As you might have guessed, the Belvedere is no dumpy place. In fact, it is a palace, the Upper and the Lower along with the Orangery and the Palace Stables.

Belvedere (Photo Bill Pike)

Lots and lots of people were at the Belvedere, but it was worth the long walk. The grounds are immense, the buildings, and the art showcased are as Gomer would say, “a sight to behold.”

Interior ceiling in the Belvedere (Photo by Bill Pike)

From the Belvedere, we walked back toward the center of Vienna, and at some point our feet and legs told us to find a taxi ride back to the ship. Luckily, our driver was a native of Vienna, and knew exactly where to take us.

Once back at the ship, I decided to take a short walk along the banks of the Danube. Both sides of the river had nice wide paved paths. I had thought about bringing my running gear, but reasoned that I didn’t have room in my suitcase.

From the ship, I walked up to the next bridge that crossed the river. Along the way, I saw a few swans along the edge of the bank. Fall was changing the color of tree leaves, and a few people were out for a stroll.

Back at the ship, our evening schedule was different. We had our port talk about the plans for Sunday, but there were two excursions taking place tonight: a Mozart and Strauss concert and a Heurigen event. A heurigen takes place at a tavern that showcases wines of Austria. Here the focus is on sampling new wines of the local winemakers.

From our family group of eight, four were going to the concert, and four of us were opting for the normal dinner on the ship. To accommodate these excursions, guests were asked to eat in shifts. Those going on the excursions ate dinner earlier with a 6 p.m. start. Our time for dinner was 7:30.

Since we were traveling with family, we ate all of our meals with family.

But this evening, that template would change.

My wife, our daughter, and my wife’s brother found a table. The four of us sat down, and we had a couple of extra seats.

As we and other guests were getting settled in, a couple walked by our table. In passing, I heard the woman say to herself, I can’t believe there isn’t another table for two set up. She seemed frustrated, and as the couple turned to pass our table again, I stood up, and gently asked if they would like to join our table.

I have no idea what nudged me out of my comfort zone, but the couple graciously accepted the invitation to join us.

Over dinner, we learned about Nikki and John, and they learned about us. Humor cushioned the initial awkward jitters, stories were shared, and for the remainder of the trip we always checked in with each other.

There was an extra bonus as a late night snack on this evening. The chef had prepared a Goulash Soup. Since my biological clock was out of sync, I managed to stay awake for a sample, and I’m glad I did. The soup had a deep paprika color, and its rich broth with bits of beef and potato was yummy.

One thing that has been tucked in the back of mind with this trip has been World War II. In Stephen Ambrose’s book, The Wild Blue, the author wrote about bombing missions that were flown by Army Air Corp pilots and their crews in B-24 bombers.

Vienna because of its refineries and marshaling yards was often a target. Before taking off, crews received very detailed briefings about the weather conditions, the specific target, and what to expect from enemy resistance. For Vienna, the pilots and their navigators were told “to stay well away from St. Stephen’s Cathedral, the Opera House, the palace, and other historic buildings, and schools.” (Page 229, Ambrose Blue Yonder)

I can only imagine the tension, pressure, and fear the crews on those B-24 bombers felt during those missions. And, I have no comprehension what the tension, pressure, and fear felt like to a citizen in Vienna on the ground with bombs falling out of the sky.

Scars from a war are never erased.

But, I’m thankful that evil was confronted, and that Vienna endured.

Holiday needs hopeful, open, trusting heart

John Hughes was a gifted filmmaker.

I enjoy his holiday movie, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

The humor makes me laugh. But, the script pushes me to think.

Hughes creates an interesting clash between two travelers. This is a struggle against the odds and each other to get home to their families.

Moments of tension between the travelers is revealing.

Tension has a way of doing this to us.

I think Christmas in its on unique way creates a type of tension.

For Christmas that tension is wrapped in the trappings of the pursuit of perfection and the hope of surviving the madness it creates.

Right now, I’m uncertain that even Christmas can quell the tension in America.

We are divided, fractured like a battered road surface on a cold winter morning.

Deep inside the fissures of our souls that tension is entrenched.

Somehow, someway, we must realize the taut toxicity of this tension isn’t good for us.

In Planes,Trains, and Automobiles, one of the travelers has a quiet moment of self-talk. He considers his multiple imperfections and asks himself—“When am I ever going to wake up?”

I wonder the same about America—when are we ever going to wake up?

Perhaps, the potential to wake up is in our hearts.

Even in the Christmas story, I sense tension was present in the hearts of Mary and Joseph. Despite this strain, their hearts found the way to trust.

Presently, our tension is grounded in lots of things, but mistrust is a key contributor.

Our hearts are long overdue to open up to each other.

Failure to reconstruct our hearts to trust will cause them to snap.

We can’t let that happen.

No, this Christmas we need to give each other a gracious gift—a hopeful, open, trusting heart.

Author’s note: This letter to the editor appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on December 18, 2020. Photo obtained legally.

We need a deeper dive

In August, the Virginia Department of Education released the annual compiling of our students’ Standards of Learning test scores and, more recently, the scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests came out nationally. Such events are always met with headlines and comments from appointed and elected officials, and this year was certainly no exception.

Coming on the heels of a global pandemic, it came as no surprise that student performance was down when compared to pre-COVID results, even after herculean efforts from school systems and educators to maintain learning by switching from in-person classes to virtual instruction. Unfortunately, the family and technology infrastructure needed to make online learning successful was not always in place. As a result, I believe it will take students, their families, and teachers years to recover from this significant disruption.

Reacting to the SOL scores, Virginia’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, Jillian Balow, noted that while we were fighting achievement gaps before COVID, we are now even further from closing them. Why are we always trying to recover ground related to achievement gaps in Virginia?

Virginia’s students began taking SOL tests in 1998. What have we learned from 24 years of testing data? Are we any better equipped to understand students, their families, our communities, schools, and teachers now than we were then?

I believe test score data is very incomplete and can be misleading. For example, in single-parent homes during the pandemic, does the data capture the impact felt when older siblings miss multiple middle and high school classes to care for younger siblings?

Does the data uncover the effect disruptive students have on their own learning, and the learning of classmates?

Does the data reveal the consequences of prolonged achievement gaps?

Are these gaps grounded in our inability to solve malignant challenges related to family, poverty, mental health, housing, safety, and equity?

Does the data capture the morale of teachers who attempt, every day, to deliver high-quality instruction in increasingly challenging environments?

If we hope to recover instructional ground and close achievement gaps, we must commit to the hard work of answering those questions, and more. And it will be hard work, much more difficult than merely collecting test scores and then making public statement about them. Continuing to place blame for unsatisfactory SOL test results on the shoulders of teachers and school system leaders is misguided.

Maybe a week shadowing a teacher in a challenging school could change the minds (and comments) of some of our elected and appointed officials.

Since some of us are quick to blame disappointing SOL scores on teachers, I wonder if Governor Glenn Youngkin’s “tip line” saw an uptick in calls when the SOL and NAEP test scores were released. Additionally, I wonder if that “tip line” contributed to the current teacher shortage school systems face?

Truthfully, school systems have always scrambled to fill teaching positions before each new school year begins. In 1975, I began my teaching career as a last-minute hire and, as an administrator, I was later on the other side of making those hires. We have witnessed many changes since then. Often in immeasurable ways, students are affected by disruptive changes in their families and communities. Despite these changes, teachers are continually asked to be “first responders” to our societal challenges, while still delivering excellent instruction.

If we truly want to both improve standardized test scores and close achievement gaps, we need to move beyond predictable political finger-pointing. With urgency, we must commit to a deeper dive into the troublesome data, because troublesome numbers are not just statistics—they represent struggling students. Struggling students who desperately need our help. For too long, we’ve overlooked the multiple needs of many of them. We can’t afford to do so any longer.

Understanding how the academic potential of these students is affected by family, poverty, mental health, housing, safety, and equity factors is pivotal. And while it will be complicated and involve more effort, if we fail to make this discovery for every struggling student, then we will neither see improvement in SOL scores, nor will we close gaps in achievement.

For too long, we have failed to adequately address how these vicious generational patterns impact our classrooms. The unsteady family, the single parent working three jobs, the fragile, volatile student who urgently needs mental health services, the family who is crammed into a hotel room or living out of a car, the unsafe neighborhood, and the widening division of equity all reside within the walls of a school building.

Those unwavering human infrastructure challenges impact every person who is employed in a school, and embedded in that impact is morale. It is quite possible that morale is at the heart of every teacher resignation and every personnel opening a school system is advertising to fill. The tension of this human trauma makes me wonder if our vision for educating the children in our communities is outdated and no longer adequate.

Maybe this quote from Margot Lee Shetterly, author of Hidden Figures, says it best: “You don’t get the good without the bad, but you really do have to see it all in order to make progress.”

In Virginia, if we are going to make progress with test scores and achievement gaps, we must work together “to see it all” for every student.

Author’s note: This story appeared in the December 2022 edition of the Virginia Journal of Education. Thanks to editor, Tom Allen, for improving the piece and for allowing me to expand it.

Not A Christmas Song

Matthew Chapter 2, verses 9-10: “and lo, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy; and going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshipped him.”

Sometimes in the days prior to the official start of winter, cold, crisp air will settle into central Virginia. I’m an early riser and a runner, and often I start my runs just before the sun starts to creep over the horizon.

On those chilly mornings, the stars seem brighter and clearer against the deep darkness of the sky. I wonder what the wise men sensed and felt as they followed that bright star to where Mary was holding her newborn son?

Even though, it isn’t a Christmas song, I like the lyrics from a Gillian Welch song entitled “Dear Someone”. The words in the second verse remind me of Christmas, “One little star, smiling tonight, knows where you are. Stay, little star, steady and bright to guide me afar.”

I like the image of a star smiling at night, guiding the wise men to their destination, and it was a light that never failed to provide the reassurance they needed.

As I prepare for the arrival of Christ at Christmas, the light of the stars sparkling in the pre-dawn sky reminds me that the birth of Jesus, and the light brought into world by him never ceases to provide me guidance, direction, and hope.

One tiny star(Photo by Bill Pike)

Let us pray: Heavenly father may the sparkling light from the stars always remind us of your son, Jesus, and his birth. Amen

Author’s note: This piece was published on December 10, 2010 in the Society of St. Andrew’s devotional booklet.

Day Four: Bratislava, Slovakia

Departing Budapest at night, we were cruising toward Bratislava, Slovakia. Bratislava is the capital and largest city in Slovakia.

On Friday, October 14, our morning routine had a slower pace to it, as we were not scheduled to dock in Bratislava until 2 p.m.

But, as we approached the city, we were going to be carefully moving through a series of locks all designed to help us navigate the river in an efficient and effective manner.

Our first set of locks on the Danube River (Photo by Bill Pike)

I’m sorry to disappoint you, but my brain doesn’t have the bandwidth to explain how all this works. Somehow the crew, and the operators of the locks, precisely move the ship in a straight-line as the water levels go up and down as needed.

Trust me, this is an impressive engineering fete, and one that we would encounter several more times on the journey. And while I marvel at the construction and the ingenuity to master the river, my interior voice is nagging me: “we can build this, but we continue to be unable to solve basic human needs all over the world, why?”

At 10:30, we had the opportunity to visit the wheelhouse with Captain Stanislav. Again, lots of technology and engineering, and amazingly all this wizardry works— including the ability to raise and lower the wheelhouse based upon the cruising height needed for approaching bridges.

Next, we had the privilege of attending two presentations. The first one was about Mozart and the Viennese coffeehouses. This was followed by a firsthand account of growing up in Eastern Europe including the experiences of our Program Director talking about living under Communist rule.

Back in 1989, Communist rule came to an end in Czechoslovakia, and four years later, 1993, Slovakia became an independent state.

Hearing the accounts of living under Communist rule, made me as an American think— I should never take my independence and freedom for granted.

After lunch, we connected with our tour guides and loaded on to our designated bus.

On the ride to Bratislava Castle, we saw and learned a lot about the city.

The four corners of the castle are perched on a beautiful hill that overlooks the city. From here the views will catch the eyes of all visitors.

From the Castle looking downhill (Photo by Bill Pike)

History is all over the building, its statues, and grounds. A part of the grounds showcases a beautiful garden area.

Garden area on the grounds of the Castle (Photo by Bill Pike)

Throughout our cruise and shore excursions our guides remind us about two constants—the Romans and Napoleon. Yes, a long time ago each had an impact in Slovakia.

As we depart the castle, we are driven into another section of the city—Old Town. We spend the remainder of the afternoon walking and exploring here. Shops, statues, fountains, alleys, and the pleasing aesthetics of the older buildings catch our attention.

Alley space between buildings in Old Town. (Photo by Bill Pike)

And just before we walk back to the ship, we stop for drinks at an outdoor cafe.

That evening before dinner, we received a port talk from the Program Director about what to expect when we arrive in Vienna.

And after dinner, we were treated to an evening of Slovakian and Hungarian melodies. This was a mixture of operetta, folklore, and gypsy music.

The performances and the performers were good, and if a person wanted more musical entertainment, our onboard musician, Blondie, was singing and playing piano in the Lounge.

His stage name, Blondie, didn’t make sense. As Blondie was a big man, and no strands of blonde were upon his head.

Sun setting over the Danube River, Bratislava, Slovakia (Photo by Bill Pike)

Day Three: More Budapest

Despite still adjusting to local time and our internal clocks, we woke early on Thursday, October 13.

Waking early is a requirement as shoreline excursions start loading at 8:15.

Guests have three breakfast options on the ship: Cafe Breakfast, Continental Breakfast, and Breakfast. If you love breakfast, this is a win for you.

My favorite was the breakfast. The choices were endless, I could have stayed there all morning. I enjoyed trying the European granola, Muesli. It was served out of a large bowl in what appeared to be a mixture of a light cream and yogurt—delicious.

Our family assembled for breakfast in stages, and we were all conscience of making sure we would gather back in the lobby for our shore excursion.

Viking knows how to organize their guests.

With our personalized audio receivers and earpieces, we made the walk to a loading area where buses and a guide were waiting for us.

The guides magically connect the audio receivers to their receiver. They give us some basic information, and we loaded into the buses.

All along the route to our first stop, the guides provide us insights about what we see.

Throughout this trip, I will learn about the large open squares in the cities. These open spaces are the life of each community. They are dominated by lots of pedestrian traffic with public transportation woven in, and stunning architecture.

This morning, we are stopping at Heroes Square. On our Wednesday afternoon tour, our guide made reference to 1896. That year is important in Hungarian history. In 896, the Hungarian state was formed, and a thousand years later, in 1896 construction started on Heroes Square.

Immediately, my eyes are drawn to statues. The heart of the square is marked by the 110 feet tall Millennium monument. To either side of the monument are two colonnades that capture additional Hungarian chieftains and national leaders.

Heroes Square Budapest, Hungary (Photo by Bill Pike)

Also, woven into the landscape of the square are City Park, the Museum of Fine Arts, the Palace of Art, and the Millennium Underground Railway, Metro 1. The underground railway was started here to provide transportation to City Park and to preserve the beauty of Andrassy Avenue.

When we arrive back at the ship from this excursion, we have some good news—our daughter, Elizabeth has arrived. She is settled into her room, and ready to join us for lunch.

And speaking of lunch, everyday, the chef and his team prepared a different soup. Each day of the trip, that was my lunch, a bowl of soup, some crusty bread, a Bitburger pilsner on draft, and the dessert special.

One appreciation we developed was for the Viking guides. They were knowledgeable about giving us suggestions on how we might fill an afternoon, if we opted not to participate in a pre-planned excursion.

On this beautiful afternoon, we opted to take a suggested long walk on the hilly side, the Buda side of the city.

We crossed the Danube at the nearby Liberty Bridge and started our exploring. No matter where our eyes cast, in that scope of vision, there was something to catch our attention.

At a leisurely pace, we moved along stopping to explore as needed while snapping photos.

My take away for the afternoon was the Matthias Church and the Fisherman’s Bastion.

The construction of the Bastion’s walls started in the 1700s. Historians note that local fishermen were a part of guarding these walls where a small Fishtown or Watertown developed. The Bastion was severely damaged during World War II, but was gradually restored after the war.

Matthias Church is impressive from the exterior and interior. Our self-guided tour of the interior had endless points of interest. No matter where my feet took me I was overwhelmed by the history and the craftsmanship.

Spiraling window, Matthias Church (Photo by Bill Pike)

Gradually, we worked our way back to the ship. More pretty views greeted us on this pleasant October afternoon.

Before dinner that evening, all guests were invited to gather in the Lounge for a toast from the ship’s Captain.

At dinner, I steered away from the traditional menu, and always chose from the regional fare that was offered. And, at dinner, we started to get to know our assigned waiters, Mehi and Jazz.

In another life, they could have been stand up comics, or a part of the Saturday Night Live cast. Even though I’m certain neither Mehi, nor Jazz would know who Eddie Haskell was, both waiters clearly graduated from the Eddie Haskell school of schmoozing guests. Their humor kept us laughing during our meals. Mehi and Jazz called us “honey” and referred to Betsy’s mother as the queen.

After dinner, we were all invited to the top deck of the ship for the Budapest Sail Away. Our Program Director Mario provided comments for us about the sites we were gracefully passing.

Departing Budapest at night (Photo by Bill Pike)

The lit city gave us another perspective of Budapest, and its buildings and their architecture. The night lighting formed a new beauty and awareness compared to the sunlight from earlier in the day.

No matter how light is cast upon Budapest, its beauty is obvious. I will treasure our time here.

Nor will I forget that from 1949 until 1989, Hungary was under Communist rule. I sensed from our guides a heart cherished relief that the Communist control is over.

I’m certain that hard earned freedom will never be forgotten for those who lived through those forty years.

But despite the splendor of the city and all its charms, on our first afternoon I saw firsthand that Budapest like all cities has some challenges.

As our guide led us into the city, we passed a homeless man sitting on a bench.

He was slumped over, head down, smoking the remnants of a cigarette.

I think if he was standing up, his thin frame would have topped him over six feet. His straight dark black hair came down just past the collar of the curry colored suit jacket he wore.

Sadly, as I walked past, I caught a whiff of his body odor, and I could see his unclean hands. However, he made no effort to ask for any assistance from the Viking guests.

By now, you must be thinking to yourself, “Bill, why are you describing this homeless man in Budapest to us?”

Here I am a long way from home, and no different from home, I encounter a homeless person.

Two things come to mind, I wonder about his story, and the second is the reality of life—all it takes is one wrong move, and I could be that man on the bench on the banks of the Danube, or the streets of Richmond.

“I gotta find Bubba”

I can see the headline: Church employee charged with disturbing the peace, civil disobedience, and inciting a riot.

That’s the way I felt on the morning of Friday, September 29.

I was at a hardware retailer in the city on Broad Street. I needed to replace the tires on a church wheelbarrow. On my walk to find the tires, I encountered a display of Christmas trees and decorating merchandise.

If Mayberry deputy, Barney Fife, gets frosted over a new postage machine that sells stamps, then I can get frosted over the retail rush to shove Christmas at us in September.

Back on September 29, Halloween was 31 one days away, and sandwiched between Halloween and Christmas is the slowly eroding national holiday Thanksgiving.

According to the National Retail Federation spending for Halloween in 2022 is expected to be $10.6 billion. Additionally, the National Retail Federation defines the holiday season as November 1 through December 31, and in all of their predicted sales data and statistics, Thanksgiving isn’t mentioned.

Nor is Thanksgiving Day mentioned in the famous Lectionary, where pastors all over America find their suggested scripture readings to prepare their Sunday sermons.

What does that tell us about ourselves, our thinking, our priorities, our thankfulness?

Are we more captured by trick or treating, and Black Friday sales, than we are for giving thanks for farmers, truck drivers, grocery store workers, and that guy on the back burner, God?

Come November, my old bones and my soul experience an internal gravitational pull.

For many years, our family spent Thanksgiving in Duck on North Carolina’s Outer Banks. That seasonal pull is to the edge of the Atlantic’s early morning surf as it collides with a sandy shoreline.

I’m there in waders, layered in clothing to keep me warm, and I have heaved the baited surf rod line into the breaking dawn of a faint orange light.

Dawn arriving Duck, North Carolina (Photo by Bill Pike)

The fish ignore me, and that’s ok for now. For I’m consumed by the sheer beauty of the evolving sky, the crash of salted waves, and the dives of teasing shorebirds in pale light.

Some mornings on that shore, as I look north in the predawn light, I can see the beacon from the Currituck Beach Lighthouse. That man made light, and the light of the rising sun remind me of John Chapter One Verse Five: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

Let me put this disclaimer out there— I am not a theologian, nor a Biblical scholar.

I’m a rapidly aging grumpy geezer, who cares deeply about Trinity, but who does not always agree with or understand the “so-called” United Methodist church, and for that matter, you can include in my failures my inability to always understand God and the Bible.

And yet, something draws me to that scripture: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

Perhaps, you recall a scene in the movie, Forrest Gump. Lieutenant Dan has his platoon out on patrol. It is overcast, raining, and the platoon is in open terrain.

Without any notice, as Forrest stated, “Somebody turned off the rain and the sun came out.” Within seconds of that transition to bright sunlight, the platoon was in a deadly ambush.

The firefight was so intense that Lieutenant Dan ordered his men to pullback. Forrest took off running, and he quickly realized he had retreated too far.

He ran back to the scene of the ambush, and immediately started to carry his fellow wounded platoon members to a safe evacuation spot. Forrest does this multiple times.

He even stumbles upon a wounded Lieutenant Dan. Who despite his protests, Forrest is able to carry the Lieutenant out of danger.

Then Forrest realizes that his best friend, Bubba is missing.
At that point, Forrest disobeys Lieutenant Dan’s orders. As Forrest is re-entering the dense underbrush, he yells back at his Lieutenant, “I gotta find Bubba.”

In the darkness of that ambush, Forrest is a light to the platoon.

Right now, someone in our neighborhood, county, city, state, country, world, or maybe in this sanctuary is silently yelling, “I gotta find Bubba.”

But what their soul is really conveying is this, “I gotta find Jesus.”

It is no secret that I am an early riser.

I start my day with the Upper Room. I read the scripture lesson, then the devotional, and if that devotional really speaks to me, I’ll log in to the Upper Room website and leave a comment of thanks to the author.

And on some mornings, I make a prayer request on the website. If you make a prayer request, you will be asked to offer a prayer to someone who has posted a prayer on the public wall.

On the morning of October 30, I read the following words on that prayer wall: “Lord help me. I can’t take much more. You know the situation and my feelings. I am struggling.” Amen

That cry for help touched my heart. I offered a prayer. In that person’s plea, I hear—“I gotta find Jesus.”

Singer/songwriter, Billy Joel, in his song “River of Dreams” writes: “I hope it doesn’t take the rest of my life until I find what it is that I’ve been looking for.”

In the Bible, there are countless examples of people who with sincere urgency are searching, trying to find what it is that they have been looking for.

I’m drawn to the stories of the woman at the well, the man with leprosy, the young daughter of Jairus, the man lowered through the roof, and maybe for me my frustrating favorite, the bleeding woman.

For twelve years this woman had suffered from bleeding, no one had been able to cure her.

In the crush of a crowd that swarmed around Jesus, with complete human desperation, this woman believes that if she can just touch Jesus, that all of her suffering will disappear.

She works her way through the crowd, comes up behind Jesus, touches his cloak, and instantly, the bleeding stopped.

The woman must have felt deep internal joy, but now she has a bigger problem.

Jesus stops in his tracks, and asks, “Who touched me?”

From the crush of the crowd around him come quick denials.

His disciple, Peter, attempts to say to Jesus, “Look at this mass of humanity around you, anyone could have brushed up against you.”

But Jesus is adamant, “Someone touched me; I know that power has gone out from me.”

Perhaps, it was in the strength of her new found healing, that the trembling woman comes forward and falls to the feet of Jesus. She explains why she had touched him.

At that point, Jesus says to her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace.”

I love that story, but I will confess, I struggle with it.

I’m agitated by the instant healing from a simple touch.

I want to know why that healing touch of Jesus eludes those who surround us who are desperately in need.

Where is that touch in Ukraine?

Where is that touch in the unstable mind of the next mass trigger puller?

Where is that touch for the person battling cancer for a second time?

Where is that touch in our divided church, our divided country?

And while I’m whining away, what I really need to be asking is this: Bill, where are you, where is your faith?

“I gotta find Bubba.”

“I gotta find Jesus.”

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

My wife is a prolific reader.

Quite often, she will hand a book over to me that she has completed.

My reading pace is turtle slow. I plod through a book.

I keep a highlighter with me as I read a book. That way I can capture a word, sentence, or paragraph that resonates with me.

I wonder if you have ever come across a book passage like this: “There was no God for me anymore. My God had forsaken me. My God was a punishing God. My God had failed and left me to die. I had no use for God. Forgive me, Mama. I thought to myself as I threw the Bible under the bed. I had no use for it. All of it was a lie.” (Hinton, page 105)

Those words came from Anthony Ray Hinton as he sat on the edge of his bed in his cell on Alabama’s death row.

For nearly thirty years, Mr. Hinton was an inmate. Mr. Hinton was wrongly convicted of murdering three people. His book is titled: The Sun Does Shine.

Luckily for Mr. Hinton, a very gifted attorney, Bryan Stevenson, kept battling the darkness of Mr. Hinton’s case. Mr. Stevenson always ended his conversations or meetings with these words for Mr. Hinton: “hang in there.”

No matter where we look in our world, it is becoming tougher and tougher for people to hang in there.

“I gotta find Bubba.”

“I gotta find Jesus.”

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

Yes, tomorrow is Thanksgiving, and across America there will be hundreds of volunteers who will feel an internal gravitational pull to be a part of providing a thanksgiving meal to the poor, the homeless, the downtrodden, the outcast, the addict, the lost, and the person who can’t take much more.

Over the course of the last several weeks, our congregation felt a gravitational pull, flood buckets and Thanksgiving meal bags were filled and distributed.

That heart work from you will be a light in the darkness of a stranger’s life.

You became this stranger’s Forrest Gump, or even better the embodiment of Jesus.

What made you respond to those requests? What nudged you? What pulled you?

Those are questions worth pondering because there are times when you, me, we, us choose not to respond to the nudge or the pull.

From now until Christmas, and despite our efforts to push it back, a chaotic craziness will consume us.

This madness has its own gravitational pull.

This seasonal circus will aggravate us, test our patience, cause frustration, push us to pursue an unattainable seasonal perfection, make us cranky, and zap our energy.

At some point in this lunacy, you have will have a mercurial meltdown.

And when that happens, a voice deep inside of you will whisper—“why, why are you doing this?”

Well, the answer to the meltdown can be traced back to that hardware retailer down on Broad Street on September 29.

But here is the real challenge for you, me, we, us in the coming collision with Christmas—it’s not about us.

No, its about the darkness.

The darkness is trying to overcome us.

We can’t let that happen.

We must confront the darkness.

We must find the courage to counter the darkness.

By countering the darkness, we have the potential to bring more good, more light, and more hope into the life of people like the person who wrote these desperate words on October 30: “Lord help me. I can’t take much more. You know the situation and my feelings. I am struggling.”

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

When you least expect it, an internal gravitational pull will be coming to you from Jesus.

That pull will require your soul to gently disrupt your peace, to be disobedient for the right reasons, and to incite a riot within you.

Drop your fear of the darkness, step into its edge, and shine your light.

Somewhere out there, a friend, a neighbor, a co-worker, a stranger is hoping that the darkness will not overcome the light of your kind soul.

I gotta find Bubba.

I gotta find Jesus.

You, me, we, us gotta push our light into the darkness.

Jesus is counting on us, his touch can’t do it all.

Remember: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

Author’s note: I had the honor of being the speaker at our annual Thanksgiving Eve service at Trinity United Methodist Church in Henrico County, Virginia on Wednesday November 23. The words shared here are what I presented.

Room 204 is closed today

Per the order of the Society For The Moderation Of Glitter(SMG), Room 204 is closed today Wednesday, October 26, 2022. The closing is due to excessive glitter contamination levels.

Press Release Wednesday, October 26, 2022

On the afternoon of Tuesday, October 25, 2022, Regional Emergency Services Personnel (RESP) were summoned to the main floor of Trinity UMC Preschool.

Upon arrival in Room 204, emergency personnel found a substitute building caretaker in the corner of the room with tremors. The worker was stuttering out the barely audible words: “it came back, it came back.”

Emergency responders immediately diagnosed the worker with pre-seasonal acute grand glitteritus.

Glitteritus is a condition that temporarily impairs building caretakers when excessive amounts of glitter from student art projects becomes lodged in carpet fibers. Despite careful vacuuming, glitteritus is triggered when caretakers realize their efforts to remove the glitter are not being effective.

To counter the glitteritus, emergency responders rush caretakers in the acute grand condition to the nearest local craft brewery. Research has shown that a drip line IV linked to a seasonal beer like an Oktoberfest reduce the manifestation of the glitteritus. Craft brewers have been trained to work cooperatively with emergency responders in making the proper IV line connections to the appropriate keg.

Coming out of the pandemic, RESP expects to have a busy season responding to calls related to pre-seasonal acute grand glitteritus.

During the pandemic researchers from the Vacuum Institute of America (VIOA) have been experimenting with vacuum cleaners powered by the same jet engines found on the Boeing B777-300. Those jumbo engines safely take passengers on transcontinental flights.

Additionally, the Association For Building Caretakers(AFBC) is working with state and federal legislators to introduce state and federal laws that would limit the amount of glitter that students can use for seasonal art projects.

RESP responders expect the contaminated classroom to be closed for one full school day. This will allow representatives from VIOA to conduct a real time test on the carpet of the classroom.

Progress is being made with vacuum cleaners powered by the B777-300 engines. Noise reduction has improved, but officials are still concerned about classroom items that the powerful vacuum sucks up that are larger than glitter particles.

My nemesis (Photo by Bill Pike)

Back to school, back to church

New school year start times vary across America. Some begin before Labor Day, and others start after this holiday.

Photo by Bill Pike

The first Sunday after Labor Day, often signals the start of a new church year.

Photo by Bill Pike

From a variety of angles, schools and churches share some similarities.

For example, the COVID-19 pandemic was an unexpected disruption. It created multiple levels of tension. School and church leaders often found themselves in impossible conflicts with parents and congregations.

In schools, the imperfect switch from in person instruction to virtual learning resulted in students falling behind academically and socially. It will take schools and students years to recover from this lost instruction.

With churches, a similar struggle evolved from the pandemic. In trying to protect their congregations, some churches alienated members with stringent protocols. Enforcing these health protections pushed some churchgoers to leave their church.

More similarities between schools and churches are seen in the areas of: human sexuality, finances, safety, and public opinion.

Even before the pandemic, schools and churches often found themselves on public display. Quite honestly, public perceptions can make decision making by school and church leaders a no win situation.

So what must school and church leaders do in order to regain ground lost from the pandemic?

A good starting point for school and church leaders is investing in the time to listen.

Whether they are right or wrong, communities and congregations want to be heard. Leaders who fail to take the time to listen will find framing the teamwork needed for future change difficult.

Schools and churches in their communication must always be honest and transparent, especially when plans go wrong. Telling the truth is an opportunity to rebuild trust.

In their communities, schools and churches must become better at conveying their stories of success even in difficult situations. Not sharing stories of success is a missed opportunity to build relationships.

Sadly, safety continues to be a concern for schools and churches. Both are too familiar with shooting tragedies. These tragedies are birthed in their communities. How might churches and schools collaborate to improve safety in both environments?

Also linked to safety is the physical condition of school and church buildings. Neglected or delayed maintenance only creates more problems in providing conducive environments.

Churches and schools require sustained financial support to stay open. Over the last several years, studies of church data from the Pew Research Center have documented the decline in church attendance. Shrinking attendance impacts the giving capacity of congregations.

For school systems securing their fair share of tax revenues can be a challenge. This is especially a concern when the needs of the community are significant at all levels of operation.

Neither churches nor schools are immune from challenges related to human sexuality.

For churches, some denominations have split over doctrines and policies related to human sexuality. These differences create stress and division. In the end, these divisions hurt people and contradict the premise that churches are supposed to be grounded in “love” for all.

Sometimes lawsuits related to human sexuality rights have required school systems to adjust policy manuals and student codes of conduct. These by law changes can also impact the physical facilities of a school and require special training for school staff.

In the August 2022 edition of the North Carolina based Our State magazine, I read an interesting story about chef, Rob Clement.

Mr. Clement makes the point from his early work in restaurants about the ability to be “adaptable.” And he carries that further by emphasizing the importance of the “pivot.” Mr. Clement states: “In a restaurant kitchen, every minute is a pivot, I don’t know how not to pivot.”(Our State, p.116)

As schools and churches work to recover ground from the pandemic, they need to ask these internal questions: “Are we adaptable, and can we pivot?”

If schools and churches can’t adapt and pivot, that leads to another question: are their traditional models of leadership and operation outdated?

Having worked in public schools and a church, I sense both are capable of pivoting and adapting, but implementing real systemic change can be a challenge. Sadly for churches, change is difficult.

As schools and churches fully reopen, I believe their ability to regain lost pandemic ground will depend upon their willingness to learn more about how to adapt and pivot.

Our communities still need schools and churches.

However, if schools and churches expect to be a vital part of our future, their leaders and their communities must not fear change.

Fearing change reduces the ability to adapt and pivot.

If a chef can adapt and pivot in the kitchen of a restaurant, then our schools and churches must be capable of the same flexibility.

Aren’t we all odd buckets?

Flood buckets on pallets waiting to be loaded.
(Photo by Bill Pike)

On the morning of Friday, November 11, I suspect some of the bucket brigade who showed up at the Virginia Conference office to move and load flood buckets are a bit stiff, maybe achy in the arms and shoulders, and moving a little slower. That is to be expected when 3,752 buckets containing cleaning supplies are moved from storage areas to wooden pallets and loaded on to a tractor trailer.

In truth, I was one of those volunteers who showed up to help, and yes, I took a couple of ibuprofens this morning. Apparently, we had close to 30 volunteers. It was a good group of women, men, and staff from the conference office.

The experts who directed us were kind and patient. There is a precision to loading pallets with buckets, and then using shrink wrap to encase the stacked buckets. Our friendly leaders reminded us:  expose the corners on the pallets, stack three high, keep handles to the inside, and don’t rush, this isn’t a competition.

Shortly after 9, we started, and as we approached 10:30, storage rooms in the building and two U-Haul box trucks had been unloaded. With each pallet properly stacked and wrapped, forklifts were used to lift the pallets onto the ttractor-trailer

 While the buckets all appeared to be uniform in height that wasn’t always the case. The orange and blue colored buckets provided or purchased from those two big hardware retailers were a perfect match. But, sprinkled into the donations were some different colored buckets and their height didn’t match the orange and blue. As the moving and loading progressed, those different buckets were named odd: “We need some odd ones to finish offloading this pallet, let’s set the odd ones off to the side for now.”

That naming made me think about the volunteers for this task, and internally, I asked myself– aren’t we all a bit odd?

 After 47 years of marriage, I’m certain my wife would affirm that I have some oddities.

When I take a look at my fellow volunteers, we are a diverse group, some might consider us odd for participating in this loading.

Then I thought about the people in need who will receive the kits, how might they be odd? Is it because they are the victims of a natural disaster?

And I pushed my thinking a bit further, isn’t the Bible full of odd people? Noah, Job, Sarah come to mind.

How about Jesus and the people he encountered?

In recruiting his disciples, do you think it odd that these men basically dropped what they were doing to follow Jesus? Think about the people in the parables, were they seen as being odd by society?

We might all be odd buckets, but we have something in common, our hearts.

Yes, it was our hearts that pushed us to fill a bucket with cleaning supplies, drop it off at our church, and then volunteer to insure the buckets were properly secured on a pallet, and with great care loaded on a tractor-trailer.

Relax, in a couple of days, the soreness will exit our bodies.

And yet, I hope our hearts will never forget the teamwork and energy that took place in the parking lot of the Conference Office on a just right fall morning.

 Because in the long run, it is the work of the heart that makes a difference in the lives of all odd buckets.

Author’s note: I was honored to have this piece in the November 15 edition of the Advocate, the weekly newsletter from the Virginia Conference of the United Methodist Church.