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.

COVID-19: an unwanted story

From the writer, this piece appeared in the April 15, 2020 edition of the Connection for Trinity UMC in Richmond, Virginia. Thanks for the opportunity, Bill Pike

I am certain that my granny, Margaret Harrod, wanted to burn or toss in the Haw River my favorite book, the story of Lucky Mrs. Ticklefeather. But, she never did. 

Also, I know for certain, there are parts of my life story that I would like to burn or toss out too. But, I can’t. All I can do is ask for forgiveness and learn. 

Right now, I suspect we are all thinking, I wish COVID-19 didn’t exist. It is an unwanted intruder, a story we don’t want. 

 Every day, I learn another person’s story related to COVID-19. This virus is quite a puncher. Its impact is far reaching. Often, those stories have sad endings. 

But, at Trinity, I’ve seen the counter punches to COVID-19. Here are a few.

 The leadership of a program staff committed to bringing worship and other programming to our congregation and community with the use of technology. Even, Holy Week was preserved with quality and creativity.

Our office staff constructed a staggered schedule that gives them the flexibility to provide coverage each day of the week for the church.

Ronnie Johnson, Bobby McShaw, and Juanita Woodson have been keeping an eye on the building.

And way up in Haymarket, Virginia, our communication specialist, Kim Johnson, has figured out how to do a million things for us in a nanosecond. 

Church Council, the Finance Committee, the Trustees, and the Trinity Foundation are meeting via Zoom. Heck, even my 92 year old mother-in-law figured out how to Zoom!  But more importantly, these congregational leaders are working cooperatively to keep us on track.

But here are some more good Trinity stories for you to consider… our Lenten devotional book gave us a lot to ponder from many perspectives, the Stitchers and all of the masks they have handmade for workers in need, and your generosity with the food collections.

We had no idea how the food collections would turn out. But, we learned…even kind hearted people who we hadn’t seen at Trinity for a long time participated by dropping off a much needed donation.

I have thought a lot about my parents and their families during this pandemic. I keep coming back to one word…sacrifice. They embraced it.

This morning in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, the quote for the day caught my eye. Everett Dirksen once said: “I am a man of fixed and unbending principles, the first of which is to be flexible at all times.”

As rigid as we might be in our traditions at Trinity, in this initial confrontation with COVID-19, I think we have shown our ability to be flexible.

Continuing to punch back at COVID-19 will require us to be flexible.

And there is one more piece to our story for COVID-19 from Matthew 28:10, when Jesus said on the morning of his resurrection: “Do not be afraid.”

If my granny can endure reading to me Lucky Mrs. Ticklefeather a million times, we can punch back COVID-19.

Trinity, we will get through this. 

And we will do it with flexibility, endurance, sacrifice,  and without fear.

It is official: I am old

On Friday, March 20, 2020, a record high temperature was set in Richmond. The thermometer hit 88 degrees. That broke a record of 85 degrees set back in 1948.

I can verify the heat on that afternoon as we were working in the backyard of our son’s home. We were clearing debris that had probably been there since 1948. 

But, this morning, Wednesday, April 15,  when I headed out for my run, the temperature was 39 degrees with a wind chill of 29. 

The National Weather Service had a freeze watch posted for sections of Virginia, frost advisories for sections of North Carolina, a winter weather advisory for stretches of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, and parts of the Virginia and North Carolina coastlines had special marine warnings.

So much for spring, welcome back winter.

On my run, I wore my knit cap, gloves, and other winter gear.

This is nuts. And just think, in a few short weeks, I will probably be whining because of the heat and humidity.

But, I enjoyed my run. It is good to embrace the elements and all of the contrasts the weather of spring brings to us.

Later this morning, I would be heading to my doctor’s office for my annual physical. Back on April 9, I had reported to the doctor’s office for my lab work. 

On April 9, I wore the mask made by my wife, the Commander Supreme. I checked in outside the building. Then, I was told to wait for a phone call. The phone call would be my orders to report to a tent in the parking lot. There, I would have my blood drawn. 

Ok, I will tell you up front, I’m a chicken when it comes to blood drawing. 

I always alert the nurse doing the work—you have to talk to me during the procedure. I will not watch what you are doing either. If you don’t talk with me, you might be picking me up off the floor, or in this case the parking lot.

The nurse was very good. I didn’t dent the asphalt.

I left, went back home, ate some breakfast, and then headed to Trinity. 

Sometime after one, the Commander calls. She tells me I need to call the doctor’s office. Immediately, I’m in a panic. What did those blood tests reveal?

So, I call. 

Mr. Pike, we need you to come back to have your blood work done again. Something went wrong with the lab process.

I was polite. I promptly left to get this over. 

I checked in again. This time, I was directed to a small trailer. The same nurse was waiting for me. 

It was a windy day. I asked her about the tent. She told me a gust of wind took it and everything inside of it. Now, all of her equipment was set up inside this tiny trailer. The chair for the blood work was sitting in the bright April sun.

I sat in the chair.  The nurse remembered my talking request. We yakked. She drew the red stuff. And, for the second time, I didn’t dent the asphalt.

This morning, after the run, I showered, dressed for winter again,  and headed to the doctor’s office.

As on April 9, I was checked in outside. At the entrance doors, a nurse sat wrapped in a blanket with a portable heater running. She asked me a series of questions, took my temperature, and sent me in the building.

The nurse who did all of the prep work for the doctor was very good. She captured my health updates, and then she asked me a series of questions. All of the questions were designed to test my mental dexterity.

I interpreted that line of questioning to affirm one thing—I am now officially old. 

And if there was any doubt at all, I was given my first pneumonia shot, and informed about a new shingles shot. After this COVID-19 chaos settles, I will need to get the shingles shot.

I take no comfort in the affirming from this annual physical that I am aging. I worry about the future. I pray that I will not be a burden to the Commander Supreme or our children. I don’t want that to happen to them.

This quote from Sophia Loren makes a lot of sense:  “There is a fountain of youth: it is your mind, your talents, the creativity you bring to your life and the lives of people you love. When you learn to tap this source, you will truly have defeated age.” 

I don’t expect to defeat aging, but I hope I can tap those sources. I hope to continue to develop my mind, my talents, my creativity, and I hope to use these gifts to be better at loving those people who surround me.

Over the last week, the Richmond Times-Dispatch has given lots of coverage to the passing of Bill Millsaps. Mr. Millsaps had quite a career as a sports writer, columnist, and executive for the newspaper.

On June 24, 2011, Mr. Millsaps was honored to be named the recipient of the Red Smith Award. This award is the most prestigious sports journalism recognition in America.

In his acceptance speech, Mr. Millsaps noted the sixth game of the 1977 World Series. That was the game when Reggie Jackson of the New York Yankees hit three home runs.

Both Mr. Millsaps and Red Smith were covering the series. At the time, Mr. Smith was 72 years old. After the game Millsaps and Smith were in the media madness in the hallway outside the Yankees’ clubhouse.

In this media mayhem, Mr. Millsaps asked Mr. Smith, “I know why I’m here. Why are you here?”  Mr. Smith replied, “Oh, you can always learn something.”

At that point, Mr. Millsaps reflected to himself—“that’s not a bad motto for any working journalist.”

And in truth, that’s not a bad motto for someone like me who has been officially notified that I am old.

As I continue to age, I hope that I will always be willing to learn.

Aging really comes down to our capacity to adjust.

Life, like today’s Virginia weather is a roller coaster—full of ups and downs.  Adjusting to those conditions is about learning. 

It is figuring out how to sustain the ups while not letting the downs consume us. 

Red Smith was right—“oh, you can always learn something.”

As I age, I pray that I will always be willing to learn.

COVID-19: zoomed out

We should never ever let ourselves forget Easter 2020. 

It should stick to our souls like preschoolers working with glue and cut paper shapes for the first time.

It should stick to us like peanut butter and jelly on a grandchild at lunch time.

It should stick to us like a barnacles on dock posts in a harbor.

Don’t make a mental note, write it down somewhere: don’t ever forget Easter 2020.

Post it somewhere. 

Somewhere, so that you will be able to see it everyday.

Somewhere, where it will stick to your soul.

On Easter Sunday morning, I was up early as usual. 

I did my reading of the Upper Room, read the recommended scriptures, read the last post from our church’s Lenten devotional book, and prayed.

I did a tweak of my projected Might Be Baloney blog posting, and then headed to Trinity to open up.

This should be no surprised to you, but the building is quiet. 

None of the usual human sounds are present. Occasionally, from a mechanical room I hear a compressor kick on and run its cycle.

On this overcast morning, I need to remove the black cloth from the cross out front. This year, I will replace the black cloth with a white one.

No chicken wire will be placed on the cross for the placement of fresh cut flowers— thanks COVID-19.

A confession to the Stitchers, I robbed a piece of white material from your tractor trailer stash of cloth. I hope you will forgive me.

Since the weather guys are predicting a stormy Monday, I cleared a couple of storm drains from spring tree debris. The church building is officially closed on Monday. 

By the time I left, modern worship leader, Aaron Miller, was in the building. He was making some adjustments for the morning worship service.

Interestingly, the day ahead of us was to be centered upon technology.

 At 9:30, we would Zoom with our Sunday school class.

 Next, at 11, we tuned into the church website for the uStream of the worship service. 

And then at 3:30, we would Zoom with our family. 

On Saturday afternoon, we had a Zoom cocktail hour with our dearest friends from college, and earlier in the week, we had a Trinity trustees meeting via Zoom. 

In a blink, I think Zoom and its counterparts have become the new normal.

Something really scary happened on Sunday afternoon during our family Zoom gathering. 

All of a sudden my wife’s 92 year old mother was on the screen with us. In a matter of minutes, she had figured out the app, followed the prompts, and thanks to those technology gods—she was present.

I was impressed. I can barely figure this junk out at 67. Who knows if I make it to 92, I might be zooming back and forth to Mars everyday.

Of course, I did have a couple of grumpy moments on Easter Sunday. 

My blog provider notified me that my annual renewal fee was coming up. I thought to myself the nerve to bug me on Easter Sunday about this. Quickly, I fired off an e-mail. And of course, they responded with— our system of notification doesn’t pay attention to traditional calendar events. 

And then, the quietness of an afternoon walk was broken with three intruders—a lawn mower, a weed eater, and a leaf blower. Maybe someone can chart Handel’s Hallelujah chorus to include that threesome. But, to really round out that sound, we needed a chainsaw. Oh, well, maybe next Easter the chainsaw will chime in too.

But, on our walk, my wife, the Commander Supreme, did show me something notable that she and her walking partner, neighbor Barbara Teague, found on an earlier walk.

In the front yard of a house on Baldwin Road, a small cross was present, and the cross was covered in azalea blooms. The cross was beautiful—some of my grumpiness disappeared.

Years ago in a letter, a friend wrote these words to me from Proverbs 3:5-6:  “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.”

I know for certain I have referenced my friend’s letter and that Bible verse in other writings. For some reason, those words from Proverbs have stuck with me.

I hope that little cross of azalea blooms will stick to me a long time too.

Yes, this Easter was different, but we need to let its impact stick to us. We need to learn from it. To hold tight to it.

And even though, we might be about zoomed out, that cross is the path for our hearts to follow. 

Stick to it.

Easter 2020: I still have no clue

For lots of years, my parents hosted the annual Easter gathering for the Pike family. It was quite a turnout. 

I’m sure my parents always prayed for good weather, so that the large family wasn’t crammed in our small home. And, I might guess they breathed a sigh of relief when the family was gone, and the last of the dishes had been washed.

With good weather, there were constant Easter egg hunts in the yard. As the cousins aged, basketball and baseball games took place after a tummy stuffer lunch. No one in the Pike family was a slouch around a stove. 

I seem to recall in those baseball games that our uncles wore us out. I think they did all the batting, and we did all the chasing and catching of their batted balls.

There will be no gathering of the Pike family this Easter. My sister and her husband Eric who took over hosting this event several years ago cancelled it. COVID-19 forced this change.

We will miss making the trip to Snow Camp, North Carolina where they reside.

 Theirs is a beautiful home, a small farm with rolling Piedmont hills, and ever changing views into deep pastures. 

I love the quietness found sitting on their front porch. That solitude is occasionally broken by the chatter of birds, the crow of a rooster, the moos of grazing cows, and the restless horses in the barn.

I admire my cousins and our one living uncle for keeping Easter, July Fourth, Thanksgiving, and Christmas as times for the family to  gather.  And even though, I am an infrequent guest at those events, I hope they never die.

COVID-19 has turned the world upside down. 

Over the last several weeks, churches have been scrambling to reinvent themselves by offering Sunday morning worship and other church programming through modern technology. And, I think it is good church leaders have figured this out. I just hope no one blows a technology fuse or hits the wrong switch on all those broadcast on Easter Sunday.

However, I think the real question for churches will be how many are still functioning once the world returns to normal? Any number of churches were already hanging by their fingernails financially. What will churches learn about themselves from COVID-19 will be important in finding a path forward.

I’ll turn 67 in June, and just to be honest with you, I don’t know that I have ever completely understood the Easter story, and at times I feel the same way about Christmas too. 

The world was a mess then, just like it is now.  And I keep coming back to this question, how could we kill someone who offered so much good? I’m not sure, but I think the answer is grounded in fear.

Fear does a lot to us, maybe more than we realize.

And yet while I may struggle with the Easter story, I still need something to hang on to. Something to get me through each day to help me keep an eye on my fears. And for some unexplained reason, I keep coming back to those guys up in the blue yonder and their teachings.  

It is no secret that Pat Conroy is my favorite writer. I am still saddened by his passing. 

His book My Losing Season is about Conroy’s basketball playing days at The Citadel.  If they were still living, Conroy found and interviewed everyone who had something to do with the basketball program while he was a player.

One interview is unforgettable. It is with Al Kroboth, a player on one of those teams. Mr. Conroy interviews Mr. Kroboth about his time as a prisoner of war (POW) during the Vietnam War.

Al Kroboth was a navigator on a jet fighter plane, the A-6. He and the captain of the plane were on their seventh mission in Vietnam. They were approaching the targeted area to drop their payload. 

As Captain Leonard Robertson positioned the plane for this assault, the plane was hit by enemy shelling. Al Kroboth bailed out of the failing plane. Captain Robertson didn’t make it, his name is on the Wall at the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington.

When Al Kroboth awoke from the bailing out in a South Vietnam jungle, a Vietcong soldier had an AK-47 pointed at his head. Even with significant injuries, Mr. Kroboth was forced to walk barefooted for three months through all types of terrain to a prison in Hanoi.

Conroy describes in great detail the abuses Mr. Kroboth faced. I have no idea how he survived. Death was always an inch away.

There is lots of crying during the interview with Mr. Kroboth, his wife, and Pat Conroy. 

The Christmas bombings of Hanoi in 1972 eventually ended the Vietnam War and brought the release of POWs. 

Al Kroboth described the feelings of leaving South Vietnam and arriving at Clark Field in the Philippines. The POWs were concerned about the reception they would receive. But, the POWs were stunned to find ten thousand people to welcome their return.

Mr. Kroboth was the last off the plane. He walked on a red carpet through a crowd of humanity on both sides. 

At one point, a young girl up on her father’s shoulders leaned over and handed Mr. Kroboth a note.  Scribbled on the note were the following words:  “Greater love than this hath no man.” To this day, Mr. Kroboth still has that note.

I think those words from John 15:13 were written to give me a clue about Easter.

This week came the announcement that singer/songwriter, John Prine, had passed away. Mr. Prine’s cause of death was COVID-19. Though I wasn’t a frequent follower of Mr. Prine, I knew he had written quite a treasure of songs about real life, real people, in real situations. Mr. Prine used his artistry with words to weave their stories.

The song “Boundless Love” from his album— The Tree of Forgiveness was written by Mr. Prine along with Dan Auerbach and Pat McLaughlin.

The chorus from “Boundless Love” is also another clue for me about Easter:

                 Surround me with your boundless love

                 Confound me with your boundless love

                 I was drowning in a sea, lost as I could be

                When you found me with your boundless love

                You dumbfound me with your boundless love

                You surround me with your boundless love

Even though Easter 2020 has been turned upside down by COVID-19, we should not be discouraged. 

Our clues for moving forward come from that journey from Bethlehem to Jerusalem. That young man on that journey turned the world upside down too.

Perhaps our pivot point for moving forward is having the courage to dismiss our fears and turn our hearts upside down.

Somewhere in the midst of all those Pike family gatherings love was the catalyst. 

Love was somewhere in Al Kroboth’s nightmare. 

And as “confounding” and “dumbfounding” as love from the two guys in the wild blue yonder might be, if we want and need their love we will be surrounded by it.

Our challenge is to turn our hearts upside down, and use that courage to surround this upside down world with love.

Those two guys in the wild blue yonder have been waiting a long, long time for us to do it.

I think we can.

Even on the morning of his resurrection, in Matthew 28:10, Jesus said:  “ Do not be afraid.”

That should be all the encouragement I need. 

Remember—courage minus fear equals love.

Happy Easter!

COVID-19: One Big Cootie

If you grew up in the 60s, then I hope you have watched the movie That Thing You Do. This film was written and directed by Tom Hanks.

And while I am no expert, the movie perfectly captures the life cycle of a one hit wonder band. In fact, the name of the band created and followed in the movie eventually is named The Wonders.

Hanks spares no details in telling the story of The Wonders. From their humble beginnings to a top ten hit with all of the ups and downs in between. The actors and actresses cast are perfect. And so are the sets and all of the props. 

The soundtrack for the film matches the popular music styles from that era complete with the disc jockeys who play the songs on those local AM radio stations.

Along with writing and directing the movie, Tom Hanks plays a pivotal role as Mr. White, an A&R (Artists and Repertoire) executive from Playtone Records.

In real life, The Wonders hit record “That Thing You Do” was actually written by Adam Schlesinger a bass player and songwriter in a real band —The Fountains of Wayne. If you listen to “That Thing You Do” your ears will automatically be transferred back to the British Invasion. There is even a scream before the guitar solo just like John and Paul could do.

But as real as the movie and the soundtrack are at capturing that joyful time in music, the now of everyday real life can be jolting too.

On Wednesday, April 1, 2020, at age 52, Adam Schlesinger died from complications of COVID-19.

In the movie, That Thing You Do, there is a backstage scene where Mr. White is telling The Wonders how important their performance at this show is for them. He points out a rotund man, K. O. Bailey, with a cigar who is an important local disc jockey. Mr. White refers to Mr. Bailey as “the biggest Cootie I ever saw.” 

Well, that’s the way I feel about COVID-19, it is the biggest cootie I have ever seen. But, here is the problem—cooties are basically fictional germs grounded in the playfulness of our childhood. There is nothing fictional about COVID-19. 

On the afternoon of Thursday, April 2, I found myself on I-85 working my way back to Richmond. The interstate message boards in Virginia and North Carolina basically carried the same communication: Stay Home. I had a valid reason for traveling.

Along those lengthy straight stretches on I-85, at times it appears that the road builders just cut a swath through timeless pine forests to make the road. On both sides of the highway,  long tall pines stand upright with other trees and undergrowth dwarfed by their size.

 At certain points along the roadway the green spring landscape is broken. Clusters of Eastern redbud trees unite together. Their purple blooms breakup the sameness found in the median and shoulder of the interstate.

Out of all the trees that grace the Middle Atlantic states, I think redbuds are one of my favorites. Clearly, they are a reliable signal that spring has arrived. But, I also sense redbuds are dependable and resilient. Plus, when their leaves form, they are in the shape of a heart. To push back this big cootie, COVID-19, we will need lots of resilience in our hearts.

Closer to Richmond, I pickup our NPR station. I caught the last thirty minutes of Fresh Air. Host Terry Gross was interviewing a British trauma surgeon, David Nott.  Dr. Nott has written a book—War Doctor: Surgery on the Front Line.

Toward the end of the interview, Terry Gross asks Dr. Nott to comment about those extremely intense, high anxiety moments when he felt like his life was on the line based upon the pending doom around him. For example, in the middle of a life or death surgery, the following suddenly happened to him:  the hospital is being bombed, the lights go out, and the personnel in the operating bunker with him leave out of fear.

Dr. Nott without hesitation admits, he does not pray everyday, he is not very religious, and he doesn’t attend church very often. 

And yet, Dr. Nott without any uncertainty acknowledges the following:

“On occasions where my life has been almost on the line, where I felt that within a split second, I’m going to die here … something happens in my head and I start to pray and I feel like I have a frequency band on the radio in my head that I turn on to. And I do go on to that frequency and I feel that I am able to talk to God.

And I do feel that he is listening to me and he’s listening to my severe anxieties at the time. And it gives me enormous comfort to realize that I am talking to him and that he is giving me some strength back.”

I am certain that you and I, (who knows, maybe even ourselves), know someone in our lives who have had similar Dr. Nott experiences in their lives. In those harrowing moments, in a matter of seconds, silent prayerful words are spoken. And then just as quickly, a form of relief or a solution can be felt by the person making the request.

So much for God being dead!

Dr. Nott is also involved in treating patients in Great Britain who are battling COVID-19. He says, “Treating this deadly virus is like fighting an invisible enemy.”

I wish COVID-19 was a harmless, whimsical cootie, but that’s not the case. Just ask the family of Adam Schlesinger and his children, and sadly thousands of other families.

Recently, I received a delightful handwritten letter from a former colleague at Hermitage High School. It has been 24 years since she and her husband retired to Arkansas. Unfortunately, her husband passed a few years ago.

In her letter, my friend told me she still loves to read. Interestingly, books about World War II are a part of her reading landscape. 

That made me think of Ray Lambert’s book Every Man A Hero. In World War II, Lambert was a medic. He was on Omaha Beach during D-Day. 

Once he landed on the beach, his work was nonstop.

At some point, Sgt. Lambert went into four feet of shoreline water to pull out a wounded soldier. With the weakened soldier in tow,  an approaching landing craft rushed in and dropped its ramp on to Sgt. Lambert. That blow knocked Lambert and the soldier below the cold Atlantic.

For countless seconds Lambert and the soldier were trapped underwater. The weight of the ramp prohibited any movement. Mr. Lambert thought his life and the life of the soldier he was trying to rescue was over. No matter how he tried, he could not move.

And then for some reason, the ramp went up. With the soldier still in his grasp, Lambert surfaced and gulped for air. Somehow despite breaking the fourth and fifth vertebrae in his back, Lambert made it to the shoreline with the soldier.

Clearly, Ray Lambert has reflected a lot about that moment. He has inspected the situation from multiple angles and asked a wide range of questions. 

But, here is what Ray Lambert has concluded:  “But, I’ve come to believe God had a hand in it. For whatever reason, I was meant to survive that day. I was meant to do other things after storming the beach and helping my men. I’m still working on what all those things may be.”

I think it is safe to say that COVID-19 is the biggest cootie of my lifetime. And I think it is also safe to say that pushing back COVID-19 will come down to two things: the same courage and strength that Ray Lambert exhibited on Omaha Beach, and God’s hands.

Remember, God is no one hit wonder.

Any doubt, ask Dr. Nott and Ray Lambert. 

And while you are asking, check on their hearts.

I think you will find their hearts to be just as resilient as the heart shaped leaf of the redbud tree.

And a quick reminder for you, your hearts are resilient too. 

Don’t even think about forgetting that.

 Because a big cootie can’t handle a resilient heart.

 Footnote:  Wikipedia and NPR sources were reviewed in the writing of this blog post. If you really want the scoop on cooties check out Jane C. Hu’s article in the May 2019 issue of the Smithsonian.

“Are you crying?”

Perhaps, you remember the scene from the movie A League of Their Own, when manager, Jimmy Dugan, chews out one of his players, Evelyn. Evelyn made a mental throwing error that caused her team to lose their lead in the game.

After Dugan berates Evelyn, he walks back to the dugout. Evelyn remains on the edge of the playing field, and she starts to cry. Manager Dugan sees this, and asks Evelyn, “Are you crying, are you crying?” Even though she is crying, Evelyn responds with a “no.” 

Dugan explodes again, charges back out to Evelyn and emphatically tells her—“There is no crying in baseball.”

Well, maybe there is no crying in baseball, but there is crying in real life.

On Friday morning, February 28, I had a good cry.

 A dear family friend had to make a difficult decision.  That news pushed me to the edge. The week had already been rough with some frustrations pinging me from lots of directions. I sobbed for several minutes. I needed that cry.

On Sunday afternoon, my friend and neighbor, David Teague, and I  went to see the documentary, Once Were Brothers. The film is about The Band. No one in the history of rock music has a story like The Band. Despite their successes and the mark they left on the music industry, The Band’s narrative at times is very sad.

After leaving the theatre, David and I acknowledged how sometimes a song or the performance of a song can move a person to tears. A couple of times during the documentary, David’s eyes filled with tears over some of the songs. 

It is ok to cry.

I love this quote from Ray Charles about crying:  “I suppose I’ve always done my share of crying, especially when there’s no other way to contain my feelings. I know that men ain’t supposed to cry, but I think that’s wrong. Crying’s always been a way for me to get things out which are buried deep, deep down. When I sing, I often cry. Crying is feeling, and feeling is being human. Oh yes, I cry.”

I think what I love about Mr. Charles’ quote is the simple honesty. I can’t tell you how many times tears have welled up in my eyes listening to his live recording of “You Don’t Know Me.” I can hear the heartache in his voice. 

On Friday morning, I was crying out of sadness and admiration. A person had been given a second chance by our friend. 

Our friend had invested a lot of time, hoping this person would beat the odds, figure things out, and make life work. It took an incredible amount of courage and risk for our friend to do this. But now, no one will ever be able to say our friend didn’t provide an opportunity for change to take place. 

American writer James Baldwin has these words of wisdom attributed to his thinking:  “People can cry much easier than they can change.” I agree with him. It is tough for a person to change. Especially when he or she can’t see the need to make an adjustment.

Now, our friend will need to recast how to move forward without this person. I know that will not be easy. But, sometimes second chances also apply to the people who initiate them. Now, our friend has an opportunity, a chance to change the future for the good.

I hope our friend can hold on to this logic from Audrey Hepburn:  “For beautiful eyes, look for the good in others; for beautiful lips, speak only words of kindness; and for poise, walk with the knowledge that you are never alone.”

After making a difficult decision, it is easy to lose your poise, your confidence, your trust in yourself, and others. 

But the key to moving forward is just like Miss Hepburn stated—remember “you are never alone.” 

Don’t forget that.  

And even though there is no crying in baseball, it is ok to cry in real life.

And you will not be alone in your crying.

COVID-19: Honking For Jesus

On the morning of Monday, March 30, I went for a run. 

It was a pleasant 59 degrees in Richmond.

My plan was to have started the run earlier. It is now 7:20. I am easily distracted.

A few steps on Sweetbriar, then a left on Stuart Hall where it merges into Sweetbriar, and down the neighborhood’s favorite winter hill for sled riding. Cross the creek, a wrong left turn entry on to the front drive of Trinity UMC, left on Rock Creek, and then a right on Baldwin.

At Baldwin and Westham Parkway, I had a decision to make, stay on Westham, or crossover and get back on Baldwin. My brain said, make the crossover. It’s late, you will possibly encounter cars despite COVID-19.

I followed my brain’s reasoning even though this would mean a long, long chug up a long, long, long hill on Horsepen.

Spring was still sprouting. It was really sprouting pollen. That yellow green powder had coated everything. 

Bursts of colors, splotched the landscape. Azaleas were starting to add to the palette. I don’t know why, but the purple blooms  of the redbud trees always catch my attention.

Signs of COVID-19 are in the neighborhood. Silent parked cars sit in driveways and along curbsides—no morning commute or school drop off today.

Occasionally, I spot a teddy bear in a window. Part of giving children and their parents something to search for as walking has returned as an almost daily activity.

I see lots of sidewalk, driveway, and roadway chalk art.

 This increased on Friday afternoon as teachers from Tuckahoe Elementary School rode through our streets. Those messages were heartfelt—the word love dominated—“we love our teachers.”

I always marveled at artwork from students in school buildings. That art at any level brings a building to life. But, in truth too, I marveled at the skills of the art teacher who could guide a student into creating something unique and lasting.

Horsepen hill is what it always is for me a challenge. My heavy legs don’t want to go forward. But, I keep moving. I could never be a mountain climber. I would expire before reaching the summit.

Finally, I come to my left turn that will meander me back to Westham. Next, I will crossover to Woodberry and make my way to a left on Hollins.

Hollins is split by a creek that kids in the neighborhood love to explore. Most of the time it is a trickle of water, but a downpour from  summer thunderstorm can change that quickly.

Just as Hollins splits into two roadways, I notice among the chalk art the following words:  Honk For Jesus.

I wonder what prompted that posting. Was it COVID-19 or some other personal need? As I continued to run, my brain reasoned Honk For Jesus was more of a reaction to COVID-19. 

One of the best human beings that the good Lord ever created was Al Dudley. Al was a remarkable social studies teacher at Hermitage High School. Al was a friend to all. His heart was golden. So many times, he gave of himself to me and others. 

I remember once talking with Al over the state of America, and Al said very simply:  “America will need a religious revolution to right itself.” 

I have no idea if Al was correct in his assessment. 

But, it seems to me that at this stage in our history, and the data bears this out, our interest in attending church and checking in with Jesus on a regular basis are in a significant decline.

Will COVID-19 slow that slide, I’m not sure. But, I would wager that right now, there are lots of people in America and other parts of the world who are honking for Jesus. A pandemic causes that type of honking.

Perhaps, what I need to realize is this—Jesus has always been there quietly honking in my life. But here is the real question—when do I truly reach out to him? If I’m really, really honest, that reach out comes when I’m in crisis. Who knows, maybe it is that way for others too.

I am no expert on World War II, but there is something unique about the grit and determination of that generation. I think they really understood sacrifice. I’m not sure I do, and I’m not sure America does either. 

But, I don’t think the World War II generation honked for Jesus. They didn’t need to, for the most part that grounding in Jesus was soundly in place.

Today, COVID-19 is grounding us.

 What is this virus grounding us in? 

Are fear, uncertainty, disbelief, instability, insecurity, worry, and anxiety, consuming our thoughts?

I’m not going to lie. Those unsettling words are rattling between my ears too.

But, I’m also working to counter those troublesome words. With some Jesus honking from Galatians 5:22-23:  “By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness,gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.”

And, I’m also holding on to the words from a t-shirt I saw on a gentleman at a restaurant in Beaufort, North Carolina in August 2019. Basically, the printed words on the t-shirt said this:  “I’m a dealer in hope.”

A honk for Jesus is a honk for hope.