deflated hearts

At some point, my wife and I will make the decision to stop receiving a paper copy of the our local newspaper, the Richmond Times-Dispatch.  That will be an economic decision, and a sad day. We both enjoy holding the newspaper in our hands.

Time flies, the world changes, I struggle to adapt.

Every day in the Times-Dispatch, I skim the Today In History section. I am amazed at the events that have occurred in my life time that I don’t remember. 

For example, on May 17, 1987, the Associated Press reported 37 sailors aboard the U. S. Navy frigate the Stark were killed when an Iraqi warplane attacked the ship. 

That date and the resulting attack is burned in the memories of family members who lost loved ones.

We all have memories. If our minds are working properly, they  will automatically recall significant dates in our lives. Some of those dates are pleasant memories, and some are simply tragedies of the worst kind. 

For a mother and father who are dear college friends, May 24 is a tragedy date.

Their youngest son was senselessly shot by a boat marina employee at a lake in Arizona in 2019.

There are still lots of unanswered questions about this tragedy.

A 500 page report about this shooting is in the hands of the district attorney for that part of Arizona. The person who fired the fatal shot at this point has not been charged. The district attorney must make that decision based upon the evidence and the laws in Arizona.

Senseless tragedies alter forever the lives of those who are left behind.

In conversations with our friends, my heart hurts. I have seen the tears of sadness in their eyes and heard the breaking of their words in their throats.

Their son left behind a beautiful wife who is a fully credentialed and trained emergency room doctor. And at the time of her husband’s shooting, she was expecting their first child.

Her husband, left behind a legacy of changed lives, including his own. He carved out a heart driven business that helped people—families and their children. He was very good at his craft. He had a great instructor— his own life.

I do not own any recordings by singer/songwriter Randy Newman. Mr. Newman has enjoyed quite a career as a songwriter and film scorer. He usually garners high praise for his work with lyrics that can be humorous, biting, thought-provoking, and at times beautiful and gentle.

His song “Wandering Boy” from his 2017 album Dark Matter on Nonesuch Records is one of those gentle, straight from the heart songs.

I don’t recall how I stumbled upon this song. But, it has stuck with me for many months now.

The song features a father describing the family’s youngest son. He calls him the “little caboose” and the “light of our life.”

One stanza focuses on a magical snapshot locked clearly in the father’s memory when his son jumped off a high board into a pool as a five year old.

That golden moment of laughter, no fears, and love is contrast with a real time question— “Where is my wandering boy tonight?”

In a following stanza, the father continues his careful reflection with statements of hope for his son. And one of those hopeful statements is this: “that a stranger’s eye is a friendly eye.”

“That a stranger’s eye is a friendly eye” is the quiet prayer of every parent for their children.

When I read those words, and hear Mr. Newman sing them, I automatically think of our friends, their loss, and the stranger who  pulled the trigger.

In his book My Losing Season, author Pat Conroy, chronicles his senior year of playing college basketball at The Citadel.

Conroy describes his teammates after the long, disheartening practices during Christmas break:  “ They looked like boys who had nothing left to give, as though someone had let the air out of their hearts.”

Parents who lose a child to a senseless tragedy have had the air let out of their hearts.

Try as they might, those hearts will never be fully inflated again.

And that is part of the tragedy too.

Long after I’m gone, maybe someday in the future there will still be a newspaper around with a Today In History section.

 And just maybe there will be one day when the summary states: America woke up. Courageous hearts bring an end to senseless  tragedies related to handgun violence.

I pray that day will happen.

Our deflated hearts need it.

unsplash.com Marcos Paulo Prado

“Same God made you, made me.”

Author’s note, the following piece was sent to the Richmond Times-Dispatch for consideration for their Faith and Values column. The piece was published today, May 19, in the Times-Dispatch. This is the original, the editors made a few good tweaks.

On the morning of Sunday, May 10, I went for a run. 

Aside from the green foliage and the colors of spring blossoms, it felt like an October morning.

When I left the house, the temperature was 33 degrees. I was dressed for an early winter morning run.

Almost all of the state of Virginia was under a frost or freeze warning.

My wife’s mother reported that Saturday evening in West Hartford, Connecticut looked like a blizzard.

And up on Mt. Washington in New Hampshire on Saturday, the wind chill was minus 22 degrees with wind gusts to 87 mph.

Some New England locations received up to 10 inches of snow.

This is nuts.

My body doesn’t want to go on this run. But, my mind needs it.

Moving slower than a tortoise in a hot desert sun, my resistant legs gradually begin to lift and push me forward.

Along the way, I note the presence of frost on rooftops, car windshields, and sections of lawns.

Birds energetically chatter like stereophonic sound in my ears. They are embracing the new morning better than me.

My wife and I have been zooming with our longtime college friends on Saturday afternoons. We do this once every two weeks. These people mean so much to us.

Saturday afternoon, my college roommate confessed—he misses baseball season.

Some of these spectacular spring days would have been perfect for a baseball game. I’m reminded of a comment from Chicago Cubs legend, Ernie Banks, about such beautiful days, he stated:  “Let’s play two.” Meaning, it is such a beautiful day for baseball, lets play two games instead of one.

As I work my way up Westham Parkway, this crazy weather makes me think about farmers. Especially fruit tree farmers who have orchards nestled in nooks and crannies throughout the Blue Ridge Mountains. 

I wonder how peach and apple trees will respond to these not normal temperatures? I wonder if I will experience the sweetness of a mountain grown peach this summer or the crisp, crunch of a mountain apple this fall?

Truth be told, we are all wondering. 

COVID-19 is at the heart of that wondering, that questioning, that pondering, that searching.

I am a natural born worrier.

And while COVID-19 has me worried, here’s what really, really worries me—ourselves.

Our differences keep widening and dividing. 

Those differences are troubling.

Maybe, you have seen the movie Best Of Enemies. The movie is based upon a true story that took place in Durham, North Carolina in 1971. The film is grounded in a book written by Osha Gray Davidson.

Two Durham residents, Ann Atwater, an African American community activist and organizer, and C.P. Ellis, leader of the local Ku Klux Klan are asked to take leadership roles in helping to solve Durham’s racial divide over public education.

At one point in the movie, there is a heated exchange after a community meeting between Atwater and Ellis. 

With her Bible in hand, and shaking it in Ellis’s direction, Atwater states to him, “This here does my talking for me.”

Ellis responds, “I have a Bible.”

Then Atwater fires back, “‘Then you ought to know.”

Ellis asks, “Know what?”

And without any hesitation, she replies:  “The same God that made you, made me.”

Screenwriter and director for the movie, Robin Bissell, captures the tension of that encounter with his words and the actors on the screen.

That tension is part of our differences, our divide. That tension is as twitchy as a tectonic plate on a fault line deep below the earth’s surface.

“Same God that made you made me” rattles in my brain.

I ask myself how often do I overlook that fact in my interaction with people? 

What prevents me from keeping that statement in the forefront of my thoughts each day?

Where am I in the differences between us?

Thankfully, I make it to the top of the hill on Stuart Hall Road.

I look toward our front steps.

A few weeks ago, my wife purchased a small sign. It hangs from one of the railing posts leading up the steps.

The sign is plain and simple, it reads:  “Be Kind.” 

The first seven words from Ephesians 4:32 state:  “Be kind and compassionate to one another.”

In the gap of our differences, and knowing that the same God that made you made me, why is there such a struggle for us to be kind and compassionate to one another?

If we create a vaccine for COVID-19, why can’t we have a vaccine to inject us with kindness and compassion toward each other for forever?

Well, in truth, we are already equipped with that vaccine—our hearts.

What will it take to truly change them?

COVID-19: What now for this place called church?

Maybe deep inside of us, we knew the world in its pre-COVID-19 condition needed to be turned upside down. 

No matter where we might cast our eyes or our attention, challenges were present. Quite simply, the world was a mess. 

But, I don’t think I initially thought that COVID-19 would cause such a disastrous intrusion and disruption.

Doesn’t matter what my definition of normal was before COVID-19, normal is gone.

The key to the future is what will we learn from the havoc  created by COVID-19? 

But, maybe the real question is— are we willing to learn from this experience?

It appears that no individuals or longstanding public institutions were spared immunity from COVID-19. Having worked in schools for 31 years, and now working for a church, I know both have been impacted.

But, even before this pandemic, many churches found themselves in difficult situations. Declining attendance, resistance to change, aging facilities, and shrinking financial support were already on the minds of church leaders at every level.

Now, those matters and others will be at stake for church leaders in figuring out how to move forward from COVID-19. Sadly, some churches might not be able to move forward and reopen because of the financial impact of the virus.

We are a long way from the explosion of growth that churches experienced in the 50s into the 60s. 

From where our Methodist church is located in western Henrico County, there are at least ten other houses of worship within easy driving distance. Interestingly, out of that ten, there is denominational duplication from the Baptists, Episcopalians, and Methodist.

I wonder what church planners and planters were thinking during that boom? Perhaps, the mentality was— “if we build it, they will come.”

And that surely was the case for many years. During those years of growth, churches often expanded their facilities’ footprint and at the same time developed rainy day funds. 

Often, the sustainers of building projects and rainy day funds were members from the Greatest Generation. That financial mindset isn’t as prevalent in congregations today. 

Over the last several weeks, I have heard comments from people related to COVID-19 like—“God’s got this” “This is part of God’s plan” “God is at work here” “God is getting our attention.”

It seems to me that God is always attempting to get our attention. When we are in crisis, we appear to immediately return to him—praying, seeking the good in ourselves for others, and searching for his wisdom and guidance to move us forward. 

However, when a crisis has passed, the question I ask of myself is this—will God still have my attention?

For a long, long, long time God has been aware of how we are living on earth. I would imagine some days he is pleased, and other days he might think— what in the world have these people done now?

But as churches look to their futures, thinking is exactly what will be needed to help congregations move forward.

Pastors and their staffs will have lots to think about as they work toward reopening. That thinking and work should also include members of the congregation as a part of the team who will be figuring out how to do this. 

Figuring this out will not be easy. Churches have a wide range of demographic needs in their congregations. How do you meet the needs of your senior citizens and infants, and everyone in between?

For sure, communication will be critical. Helping members to understand the rationale in how the reopening will work can’t be taken for granted.

And in my mind, there is one piece that can’t be overlooked. 

Churches in this fragile time cannot afford to alienate their congregations. That is why it is so important to figure out the reopening well before the return to church.

In our world, I am often reminded how much “fear” impacts our actions. The Bible is full of references using the word —fear. Clearly, in the days ahead of us, fear will continue to be around. COVID-19 has proven it shouldn’t be taken lightly. So, how do we deal with this lingering presence of fear?

I think for churches to move forward pastors, their staffs, and congregational leaders will need to do lots of practical thinking. 

Additionally, implementing a reopening plan will require very thoughtful communication grounded in safety for all, but at a reasonable pace. 

But, there is another critical piece for churches to consider. That is the capacity to change— we have an opportunity to rethink those normal Sunday morning routines.  I hope we will not be content to continue to follow our very predictable church patterns as we figure out how to move forward.

Figuring out how to reopen and  move forward will have some anxious moments.

 In those moments of uncertainty and worry, holding on to these words from Philippians 4:6-7 might help:  “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

Reopening churches will require lots of prayer and hearts capable of understanding the challenges of this task.

Author’s note: This piece was started on May 4, 2020. The content of this baloney is solely on me as an observer of life.

Pet Sounds: “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times”

On May 16, 1966, Capitol Records released the Beach Boys’ album Pet Sounds. This collection of songs was a total departure from the landscape the Beach Boys sold to people all around the world. Gone were surfing, surfer girls, fast cars, and memories about  growing up in southern California. 

The instrumentation for this recording expanded well beyond bass, guitars, and drums. Bass harmonica, theremin, all sorts of percussion, bicycle horn, woodwinds, strings, keyboards, horns, and more are all in the mix.

For Pet Sounds, Brian Wilson collaborated with Tony Asher to carve out the lyrics. Tony Asher worked in advertising. Additionally, Brian recorded the album with a group of top notch studio musicians in Los Angeles known as the Wrecking Crew.

The pattern worked like this.  

Brian wrote the music for the songs at his piano, while Tony was close by writing the lyrics. 

Brian went to the recording studio, recorded the instrumental tracks for each song with the Wrecking Crew. 

The Beach Boys would come off the road from touring, and spend countless hours over endless days recording the vocal tracks. 

Brian would oversee the mixing of the tracks, and would deliver the final product to Capitol Records.

If a song from the album made the charts as a single, then Brian’s youngest brother Carl, would work out the arrangements for concert performances and teach the song to his fellow Beach Boys.

Of the 13 tracks on Pet Sounds,  my guess is you are most familiar with “Sloop John B,” “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” and “God Only Knows.” Initially, Pet Sounds was not a huge hit like the band’s previous recordings. In fact, a few years after the album was released, it was out of print, not available. 

But, Pet Sounds, for many musicians then and now was the album that changed  how pop songwriters wrote, crafted, and recorded songs. Even today, the legacy of Pet Sounds and its impact remains intact.

As sure as the instruments used in recording the album were different, so were the lyrics. 

Brian pushed Tony Asher into an entirely different direction, far away from surfing and cars. The lyrics were introspective, probing. The boy/girl relationships of the teenage years were gone. Now, the observations and questions asked in the relationship were a step up— man and woman.

Pet Sounds has songs of exuberance “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and “Here Today.” But, the album also contains the opposite of such joyfulness—“You Still Believe In Me” and “Caroline No.”

I will admit, it took years for my ears to appreciate Pet Sounds. And, I have listened to the album, and its outtakes many, many times, and for some reason,  I keep being drawn back to one song—“I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times.”

I think I am drawn to this song for several reasons. But, here is the main one—I believe the lyrics capture how we all might feel or have felt at some point in our lives. And at those points,  we most likely have never made those feelings public.   Here are the lyrics:

I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times

Written by Brian Wilson and Tony Asher from the Beach Boys album Pet Sounds Capitol Records All lyrics Irving Music copyright 1966

I keep looking for a place to fit in where I can speak my mind.

I’ve been trying hard to find the people that I won’t leave behind.

They say I got brains, but they ain’t doing me no good, I wish they could. Each time things start to happen again, I think I got something good going for myself, but what goes wrong?

Sometimes, I feel very sad. Sometimes, I feel very sad. (Ain’t found the right thing I can put my heart and soul into)

Sometimes, I feel very sad.(Ain’t found the right thing I can put my heart and soul into)

I guess, I just wasn’t made for these times.

Every time I get the inspiration to go change things around; no one wants to help me look for places where new things might be found.

Where can I turn when my fair weather friends cop out? What’s it all about?

Each time things start to happen again, I think I got something good going for myself, but what goes wrong?

Sometimes, I feel very sad. Sometimes, I feel very sad. (Ain’t found the right thing I can put my heart and soul into) Sometimes, I feel very sad. (Ain’t found the right thing I can put my heart and soul into)

I guess I just wasn’t made for these times, I guess I just wasn’t made for these times, I guess I just wasn’t made for these times

I wonder at this very moment how many people who we think we really know feel like they weren’t made for these times? 

At times in my life, I felt like the lyrics captured me. I didn’t fit in, my brain was useless, and disappointment consumed me when the anticipation of something good happening failed.

My guess is that COVID-19 has pushed many people to think—I just wasn’t made for these times.

When I read this virus has killed more Americans than the troops we lost in the Vietnam War (58,220), I am saddened. Those troops we lost over a period of almost two decades. COVID-19 has taken at this point in America 82,246 lives (this figure changes daily)  in almost four months.

The scars of war are never forgotten, and I imagine the same will be said about COVID-19.

Maybe your heart sank like mine did when I read about the New York City doctor who took her own life related to her work helping  COVID-19 patients. I wonder if she had reached the point of feeling like she wasn’t made for these times?

There isn’t much doubt in my mind that Brian Wilson has thought and felt at moments in his life that he wasn’t made for these times. And yet, somehow, Brian with help pushed back his demons and worked to overcome them. While I love his music, I also admire that Brian is a survivor.

Yes, it is very likely that many people in the past, now, and in the future will feel like in life’s certain moments— they weren’t made for these times.

For these people, be they family, friend, neighbor, co-worker, or stranger, when they feel like they weren’t made for these times, we need to be the gentle  pivot point.

What is a gentle pivot point? What does that mean?

I think a gentle pivot point is simply this—listening.

If you ears listen carefully to the chorus for “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times,” you will hear the following counter melody:  (Ain’t found the right thing I can put my heart and soul into.)

That counter melody has always resonated with me.

Why?

Well, I think our hearts and souls are always searching for something to grab, something to hold us up, something to get us through the challenges of the moment.

And perhaps that is the very heart of the story found in “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times.”

The narrator is seeking a very basic human need—hear me, listen to me.

Right now,  in this upside down world, maybe you, me, we can be the “right thing” for that person whose heart and soul just needs to be heard.

ge·og·ra·phy

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Publix, 

I hope all is well at your headquarters in Lakeland, Florida.

As a consumer, I thought I might give you some insight as to how your expansion march is going into the northern tiers of the South. 

Personally, I find your stores to be attractive, well-maintained, and at this point your personnel have been friendly and helpful. 

From a distance, I think some of your competitors in the Richmond market have better pricing. But, I’m assuming you are recovering your cost for all of the new construction you initiated across the Richmond area.

In your newspaper flyer that appeared in the Wednesday, May 6 edition of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, I found on page 4 a teeny-weeny concern.

At the top of the page, I read the following heading:

Southern-grown produce.

The first fruit displayed is a tempting image of golden ripe pineapples at a “surprisingly low price.”

Now, my wife, the Commander Supreme, can confirm for you that I am not the sharpest tack on the bulletin board. 

But, when I was a student a long, long, long time ago in the North Carolina Public Schools, when teachers actually taught ge-og-ra-phy,  I do not recall any teacher stating that pineapples  were being produced in significant harvestable numbers anywhere in the South. 

The only state in America mentioned that grew pineapples in significant numbers was Hawaii.  Last I checked, Hawaii was still way out in the Pacific Ocean. And since I have lived all my life either in North Carolina or Virginia, I believe I would have known if Hawaii had been annexed into the South. 

Thus in lies the problem, your ad has insulted the dignity of my proper North Carolina education by implying that pineapples are grown in the Southern parts of the United States. Uncle Jasper might have a few plants in his backyard out on Sanibel Island, Florida, but Uncle Jasper ain’t growing enough to supply all of your Publix stores.

Out of the twelve fruits and vegetables advertised on the page, eight named Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina as their birth states. No origin is noted for the pineapples, fresh attitude salad, and the mix and match offer on broccoli and Brussels sprouts.

And just to make this a bit more painful for you, I checked the website for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. I specifically researched Florida Crops Seasonal Availability/Typical Harvest Times. I hope you are sitting down as I gently break this news to you— pineapples were not on the list.

I’ll give you a few seconds to regain your composure, I know hearing that news wasn’t easy.

Better now? Is it ok for me to proceed?

Hang on, here is my handkerchief, your nose mucus, tears, and slobber are running together. Use that hanky to mop up.

Now, that’s better. 

Take a deep cleansing breath.

Even though, the dignity of my North Carolina education has been insulted, I want you to know that I am to some degree a person of honor. 

 I will not call for a congressional investigation. Those trifling mischief-makers don’t know anything about ge-og-ra-phy. The only thing they understand about land is if you live and vote in their district.

But back to our problem, I believe I might have a solution for us to ponder. 

  It is clear to me that your advertising writers, copy editors, and  proofreaders need some remediation in  ge-og-ra-phy. After all, you are paying these degreed people lots of pennies to attract customers.

So, I would recommend that your human resources department enroll your loyal communicators in Miss Crump’s remedial ge-og-ra-phy class. This all can be done on-line for $19.99 per student. 

Enrolling your personnel into this twelve week class is guaranteed to solve all future ge-og-ra-phy problems. Just ask Miss Crump’s prized student, Dr. Ernest T. Bass, from Old Man Kelsey’s Woods a rock toss away from Mayberry, North Carolina.

But, if you really want to insure that I cause you no more ambushes where your tears, nose mucus, and slobber conspire against you, here is what you might consider.

Overall, your beer pricing is way out of line. Here is one example, your price for a six pack of Anchor Steam Beer is ridiculous. At the Publix in Richmond closest to me, you are asking $11.99. I can buy that same six pack elsewhere for $8.99.

You follow where I’m going with this?

Lower that six pack price on Anchor Steam Beer to $8.99 for the rest of my life, and I’ll forget about the problem you have with ge-og-ra-phy.

Otherwise, my eyes will continue to scour the weekly flyer looking for teeny-weeny problems.

in-dis-pens-able

There should be a warning message that goes off in our brains when a husband and wife make a decision to pursue becoming parents. No one can tell you what becoming a parent is truly like until you become one.

If I really search, tucked away in the hard drive of my brain are lots of memories about becoming a parent. Here are a few that I recall.

The breathing techniques from Lamaze class. 

My wife trying to teach me how to properly pin the diaper without collateral damage to the newborn or myself. 

Not reading the directions for putting the crib together, and missing a critical step. 

 Sleepless nights when you exhausted every Dr.  Spock trick to try to get your most prized possession to go to sleep.

The diaper change when your son decides to hose you and the changing surface down. 

Exploding bowel movements that dripped and oozed from the saturated diaper. 

 All points bulletin searches for that prized pacifier or the dirtiest, softest, but most favorite rag of a blanket.

See those memories are there. Safely tucked away and chronicled for appropriate retrieval. 

 It’s ok to revisit because you’ll laugh, cry, and wonder how you and your wife got through those early years.  

Now when you start the search on your brain’s hard drive for these memories, you’re certain to find the following file:  Every Father’s Nightmare. 

 In this file, you’ll find two statements from your wife. Either one has the potential to trigger a cardiac moment:  “Honey, I’m sick, or honey, I’m taking a trip.”

If the husband must deal with the first statement, automatically, he will ask a ridiculous question:  “Honey, are you certain that you are sick?”

 And  if the father gets the second statement, the first ill-advised words to spring forth to his wife are:  “Honey, are you taking the children with you on this trip?”

It will take a father, several minutes to recover from the verbal pounding he will receive if he asks his wife either of those questions. 

Once he recovers, that’s when the real fear and worry of what lies ahead of him will start to nervously ping in his brain.

Whether his spouse is bedridden or being driven to the airport, immediately, a detailed list is produced  providing the orders of the day. These orders  must be followed to perfection.  

Failure to follow this list of orders can be catastrophic for fathers in dealing with his children in these moments.  A father will automatically know he is in deep, deep trouble if he hears even a mumbling whisper of these words:  “That’s not the way mom does it.”

That one whisper can quickly turn into constant reminders to the father regarding his inferior skills.

That’s not the way Mom makes or packs my lunch. 

 That’s not the way Mom drives the car pool. 

 Mom’s never late in picking us up from any of our after school activities.  

That’s not the way Mom shops at the grocery store.  

That’s not the way Mom washes and dries my hair.  

That’s not the way Mom washes, dries, and folds the clothes.   

That’s not the way Mom fixes dinner. 

 Mom always lets us watch this show. 

 That’s not the way Mom tells us good night.

Even when the husband’s commanding officer recovers from her illness or returns from her much needed sabbatical, the chorus “that’s not the way Mom does it,” will ring in his ears forever.

Why?

Because it’s an indisputable fact— no one has the knack, the touch, the intuitive nature, the personality, the style, the grace, the culture, the diplomatic skills,  the vision, the wisdom, the talent, and the hugs of Mom.  

Exodus, Chapter 20, verse 12 in the Bible reads as follows: “Honor your father and your mother.” 

 Perhaps that famous commandment should be edited to include the following:  Honor your father and your mother, but especially your mother.

 Because only a mother has the unique ability and capacity to love her children in the way she does.

 No one else has that touch, no one, but a mother.

She is without question indispensable.

Thank A Teacher

I could be wrong, but it appears to me that there is a national recognition day for just about anything. There is even a website named National Day Calendar.  Last I checked, we only have 365 days on our calendar, but the folks at National Day Calendar report they track close to 1,500 days of recognition. 

For example, as I am writing on Thursday, April 30, today is national Bugs Bunny Day. I guess I have been living a sheltered life. Bugs Bunny has his own day, amazing. 

I didn’t check on the website to see if there is a national Mr. Grumpy Day. I’m pretty sure I could be the poster child for that special day. In case your interested in learning how to register a National Day, the website has all of the information for you.

But, there is a special national day coming up on Tuesday, May 5. That is National Teacher Day, and it is a part of Teacher Appreciation Week.

According to several reliable internet sources, leaders in education and politics started in 1944 trying to figure out a day to recognize the work of teachers. It took Eleanor Roosevelt to motivate Congress in 1953 to proclaim a National Teachers’ Day.

It took more years for Congress, the PTA, and the NEA to eventually target and coordinate the first week of May as the time for us to recognize our teachers. I don’t think any teacher would be surprised that setting aside this formal recognition took so long. Teachers know the drill. That is why in lots of communities across America, teachers remain overloaded, under appreciated,  and under paid.

Quite often, I ask myself how did I ever graduate from high school? How did I ever get accepted into a college?

I was a horrible student. Sixth grade was my best year—honor roll and perfect attendance. Beyond that year, I never worked to my potential. I know I drove my parents nuts, and I am sure my teachers wondered why my parents didn’t kill me.

But, somehow, the teachers who endured me worked their magic. And, my parents, never gave up on me. They worked with me, if I needed a tutor, especially for Algebra, they found one.

My first grade teacher, Mrs. Hughes, at Elon Elementary School taught me how to read. I am so thankful. I can read. 

Over the last year, I have thought a lot about Betsy Wall. She was the typing teacher at Turrentine Junior High School in Burlington, North Carolina. I have no idea how she withstood the redundancy of the instruction, but thanks to Betsy Wall, I can type.

If I’m lucky enough to make it to heaven, I’m certain many of my former teachers will be shocked to learn that I followed them into the trenches and became a teacher. Some will probably pass out when they learn that I also coached, became an assistant principal, principal, and even served on my local school board. There are times that I can’t believe my career choice either.

At some point during Teacher Appreciation Week, I encourage you to go back into your school day memory banks. Ask yourself this question, who was that teacher who really made a difference in my life? 

If they are still living, figure out how to contact them or post a thanks on social media.  Teachers in the past and in the present need to be thanked. That thank you is good for their souls.

Now teachers are dealing with the disruption of COVID-19. I love this quote found in the Skimm back on March 17:  “Teachers deserve to make a billion dollars a year, or a week,” stated Shonda Rhimes after homeschooling her kids for a total of one hour and 11 minutes.

Teaching always has been and always will be challenging work. Makes no difference where teachers apply their instructional and classroom management skills. All schools have different layers of stress. And that stress at times, can wear a teacher out.

While I know pay commensurate with other professions is important, I think equally important to teachers is being supported, especially in challenging situations. Being supported is critical to individual and collective morale in a school building.

So, Mrs. Hughes and Mrs. Wall, and to all those teachers in between, I thank you for putting up with me. 

Somehow, your determination helped me earn some essential skills. Those skills stuck to me like the paste used to create a collage in an art class. Thankfully what you taught me never left.

I think teachers are captured in this quote from Arthur Ashe:  “True heroism is remarkably sober, very undramatic. It is not the urge to  surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others at whatever cost.”

Teachers serve others at whatever the cost.

Be sure to thank a teacher today.

Just a t-shirt

Perhaps like me, you are attracted to t-shirts. 

I wonder how many I have owned in my lifetime? 

I still have way too many in our bedroom closet and chest of drawers.

Every so often, I cull through the t-shirts, and sort out ones I haven’t worn in years. If they are in good shape, I donate them.

I still have every t-shirt that we designed and ordered for the faculty and staff at Lakeside Elementary. God bless, Rose Tanner, who was the school’s secretary, when I first started working at Lakeside. I know she thought I was crazy, but Rose figured out how we could order those t-shirts.

My wife’s incredibly gifted college roommate, Beverly Neely Bruce, was an artist. Beverly could do anything in the art world. Near the end of my senior year of college, she learned how to silk screen and print t-shirts. 

I bought a couple of t-shirts. The colors were gold and dark green. 

On the gold one, she printed the Beach Boys in concert logo. This was based on Cyrus Dallin’s statue Appeal To The Great Spirit. 

With the green t-shirt, Beverly transposed the bottle cap from a Heineken beer bottle on to the shirt.

I can’t tell you how many times people asked me where I purchased those two shirts. That’s how good Beverly was with silk screening and printing.

But today, and this is my public service announcement, the best t-shirts made in the world, that’s right I said world, are made in Burlington, North Carolina at T. S. Designs. 

My brother-in-law, Eric Henry, runs and owns the company. This innovative maker of t-shirts has quite a story. And, I’m sure as a small, independent business, they would appreciate any and all orders and purchases at this very moment. Plus, T. S. Designs has just introduced a line of handcrafted face masks to combat COVID-19.  Don’t delay, go investigate, now!

I always thought whoever figured out that a t-shirt design could also be printed on the back of the shirt was very clever. Why have a blank back of the shirt? Don’t waste the advertising space.

One summer, we were visiting our oldest daughter in Chicago. Being the early riser that I am, on several mornings I went for a run.  I would work my way from the condo over to Lake Michigan. There was the famous Lake Front Trail. The trail winds along the shore line for many miles from the north to the south. 

I saw all kinds of people out there runners, walkers, skaters, bike riders, fishermen, swimmers, photographers, park workers, and people sitting, staring out into the sunrise. 

On one of those runs, a t-shirt a fellow runner was wearing caught my eye. Printed on the front of his shirt was the following question: Have You Exercised Your Faith Today?

I have never forgotten that shirt. But, I have never been consistent in asking myself that question, much less implementing it everyday.

A few years ago, I worked to get myself in shape to run the Richmond Road Runners annual Turkey Trot. This 10K is held on Thanksgiving morning at the University of Richmond. The race sells out every year. It is a beautiful course that winds through the campus and surrounding neighborhoods in the city of Richmond and Henrico County.

But, it is one tough course.  The route consists of twisting turns, steep hills, and there are even some trail running sections. I was always thankful to reach the finish line.

Since this race was run in the fall, the Richmond Road Runners had for registered participants a long sleeve t-shirt. These were moisture wicking shirts made from any number of synthetic materials.

I still have the shirt from the 2014 Turkey Trot. The design on the front was simple, but wise.

The theme is—We are thankful for…..

A pair of running shoes are dangling from their shoe strings, and printed on the outside of the running shoes are things people are thankful for in their lives. Here are some of things the designer listed:  family, friends, good health, freedom, food, kindness, life, and every breath.

During the last few weeks, I can’t tell you how many times I have heard from family and friends the word—blessed. Their point—how blessed they feel with their circumstances as they survey the challenges people are experiencing from COVID-19.

I note a story from the NBC evening news about a COVID-19 patient in New York City. This patient, who recently was released from the hospital spent 53 days in the hospital, 53 days. 

I can’t even begin to imagine what that experience was like.  And, I wonder how many times the patient felt like he might have been taking his last breath during his confinement.

Clearly, I have no reason to whine about anything I have experienced during my last 53 days. I should be grateful and thankful.

And also, it is quite clear, I need to make improvement in answering the question on that Chicago t-shirt—have I exercised my faith today? 

It seems that a first step for me in exercising my faith would be to focus on two verses from 1 Thessalonians Chapter 5:  “pray continually, and give thanks in all circumstances.”

That is good advice.

The next time I catch myself whining about COVID-19, I need to stop, look around, and exercise my faith.

A special cross

Growing up, our oldest daughter, Lauren was a homebody. Invitations to spend a night at a friend’s home were often turned down.

I thought she was going to croak when the sixth grade confirmation class at church had an overnight retreat. I still don’t know how she endured that one night.

But, gradually, I think time gave her confidence, and she was able to adapt. 

Week long high school mission trips with the church youth group, beach week after high school graduation, and four years of study at Virginia Tech all fell into place.

But in the summer before her senior year at Virginia Tech, she threw us a curve ball.

Lauren spent the summer of 2004 working in Los Angeles at the Center for Student Missions (CSM). This nonprofit hosted youth groups from across the country who came to large cities in America to learn about and work with the homeless.

Upon reflection, Lauren states:  “That was probably the best and most transformative summer of my life thus far. Loved every minute of it. Even the tough stuff.”

I think Lauren probably inherited my homebody genes. No way, I could have spent a summer in Los Angeles leading youth groups around the city. But, she did.

We flew out for a family visit at some point that summer. Our journey started in San Diego, and we worked our way to Los Angeles. 

 Los Angeles is sometimes called the City of Angels. At the time, my wife had two sisters living in southern California. If needed, Lauren had access to help if a crisis arose. But, thankfully that never happened.

When we finally caught up with Lauren in Los Angeles, here is the first thing that impressed me—she knew how to direct us around the city. In a very short period of time, she had been required to map out the routes and locations where the youth mission teams would be traveling during the week.

And, the other piece that caught my attention was her capacity to work with people, a very diverse population of people. This included her CSM teammates, the visiting mission teams, and the citizens of Los Angeles.

I think that summer in Los Angeles planted the seeds for her next step after graduating from Virginia Tech. She enrolled in graduate school at DePaul University in Chicago.

I remember the Sunday afternoon in August when we drove to BWI in Baltimore to pick her up from her homecoming flight. The ride back to Richmond was full of stories about her work.

Along with her stories, she also brought back some gifts. I still have the blue Los Angeles Mission hat she gave me. Minus cold winter mornings, I always wear that hat when I go for a run.

That hat could tell stories too. But, there is something special about the back of the hat. It has a cross embroidered on it. The cross is formed with a fork and a knife.

Established in 1936, the Los Angeles Mission continues work with the estimated 59,000 men, women, and children who make up Los Angeles County’s homeless population. Part of their branding includes these words:  The Crossroads of Hope.

Since the COVID-19 shutdown, our church has been attempting to provide hope and support to people in our community who are in need of food. In a blink, many individuals in our city, county, and the neighborhoods surrounding our church unexpectedly became food insecure.

Since mid-March we have been collecting food and personal hygiene donations on Fridays at our church. We simply place three large collection bins along the front driveway. Prior to Friday, we post the needed food and hygiene items via social media. Then, from 9-2 p.m. people drop off their donations.

At this point, we have made donations to the Sherbourne UMC Food Pantry, Doorways, the Saturday morning Literacy Academy at Oak Grove-Bellemeade Elementary School, Henrico County Public Schools, and the Welborne UMC Food Pantry. We also have accepted financial donations for those unable to make a trip to a local grocery store. These donations are in turn distributed to the food pantries.

In a conversation, I had with Trinity member Anne Pollard about our Friday collections, she put our efforts into one simple question—“Ask yourself when was the last time you went hungry?”

For me, the cross formed with the knife and the fork is a reminder that I should never take my blessings for granted. 

Why? 

Because in a blink, they could be gone.

At the end of each Friday’s collection, we count up our donations. This information is a part of an annual report for the Virginia Conference of the United Methodist Church.

The other day, I thought to myself these numbers aren’t important.

No, what is important is the hearts of the people who made the effort to make a donation.

And, then I thought further, nope that’s not it either.

Here is the important part—it is touching the hearts of the people who receive the food donation. 

Los Angeles isn’t the only city with angels.

All cities, towns, counties, communities, and neighborhoods have them.

Angels have hearts of hope.

You are one of those angels with a heart of hope.

Someone in your community needs your angel heart today.

That cross made with the fork and knife is counting on you, me, and us.

Weighing: “The Weight”

I always thought this might make a good Trivial Pursuit or Jeopardy question:  Who are mister, Fanny, Carmen, the devil, Miss Moses, Luke, Anna Lee, Crazy Chester, and Jack?

If you guessed these are the nine characters referenced in the lyrics to The Band’s song “The Weight” that is very sad. 

This means you, like me have what writer Dave Barry calls “brain sludge.”  Brain sludge is useless information that floats around aimlessly, primarily in the gray matter of men.

So, if you were a kind hearted lady who figured out the answer, you deserve a piece of discounted Easter candy.

Thanks to COVID-19, my childhood pal, Joe Vanderford, and I were not able to present our two part class on The Band scheduled for April 13 and 14. This class was offered through the Osher Institute at the University of Richmond.

In prepping for the class, Joe is a tough taskmaster. 

I read three books about The Band, listened many times to the first three albums, watched the Martin Scorsese documentary, The Last Waltz, read reviews, essays, and interviews, viewed assorted video clips on the internet, and eventually carved out the framework of our presentation.

By now, you must be thinking—people actually sign up for this class? Yes, they do. Remember, there are lots of brain sludgers in this world.

But, back to “The Weight”.

The song was released in 1968 as a single from The Band’s first album Music From Big Pink on Capitol Records. “The Weight” was not a hit record—it was more.

It has been 52 years since this song was recorded and released. The lyrics have been analyzed, pondered, and written about by all kinds of journalist and admirers. Additionally, over 50 recording artists have recorded versions of the song.

For my old ears, and I am not a critic, this song is just about perfect. The lyrics, the vocals, especially on the chorus, and the musician’s mastery of their instruments all mesh together to form a peerless performance.

I’ll let your ears be the judge. But, briefly I want to reference the lyrics. Luckily, this will not be a dissertation.

Start with the first two lines: 

‘I pulled into Nazareth, I was feeling about half past dead.

I just need some place where I can lay my head.’

“Half past dead,” what an image! 

Think about your life.  Where are those “half past dead” moments? Those situations in your life when you have been physically, emotionally drained. Tiredness, weariness have depleted from your body and mind all of your energy.

Now, think about real time—this COVID-19 crisis. Do you think anyone is feeling: “half past dead”?

The chorus for the song is as follows:

“Take a load off Fanny, take a load for free, take a load off Fanny, and,(and, and,) you put the load right on me, (you put the load right on me).”

Lots of people in our world at this very moment are carrying quite a load on them. No matter where we look, people are burdened with loads of worry, anxiety, responsibility, helplessness, doubt, hopelessness, and fear.

I always felt the characters mentioned in the lyrics of “The Weight” were real people, with real needs, carrying real loads. 

I felt like they were searching for an out, a solution, a remedy for  unloading their struggles. 

I have that same feeling now about people who are struggling because of “the weight” of COVID-19. They are in a similar search mode.

In 1968, America had “the weight”.

Among them were the Vietnam war, the assassinations of Martin Luther King,Jr. and Robert Kennedy.  These situations triggered riots and protests throughout our country. An uneasy tension was present.

Whether we want to admit it our not, America, these United States, have an uneasy tension present now.

Nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, somewhere between Woolwine and Floyd, my cousin Sam, and his lovely bride reside.

A few days ago in some internet chatter, Sam wisely noted the following:  “I saw a Facebook post the other day that said something to the effect that we couldn’t wait for things to get back to ‘normal.’ But, if that is all we’re hoping for, we have missed the lesson from all this.”

Just about everyday, I note a story where good hearts are doing good work for people who are feeling: ‘the weight’ and the ‘load’ of COVID-19.

I hope the lesson from that good work never ends. We can’t let it.

As much as I love the lyrics to “The Weight,” I’m also reminded of meaningful words from Matthew 11: 28-30:  “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Lots of people all around us are weary, burdened, and in need of rest.

How can I help those people?

I need to be willing to learn from that gentle and humble heart of the master teacher.

I hope I can. 

I shouldn’t be content with a return to normal. 

I should be looking for ways to push beyond a return to normal. 

Why? 

I’m still working on that. 

But for starters, part of me thinks the weight of COVID-19 will reshape, redefine, and alter normal for a long time.

And maybe in some crazy way, this will be our opportunity to reshape, redefine, and alter our hearts to counter balance that weight carried by people now and before COVID-19.

Perhaps, as I move forward, the real answer related to normal is this— keeping in front of me “for I am gentle and humble in heart.”

Surely, in the days ahead, someone that you, me, we encounter who is feeling—half past dead— will need our gentle and humble hearts.