The correlation between guns, school violence and the erosion of American families

In August of 1975, I started my first teaching job at Martinsville Junior High School in Martinsville, Virginia. Nothing in my education classes, student teaching, or orientation to the school system communicated, “Look out for students who might have a gun.”

Almost fifty years later, school systems across Virginia and America are dealing with students bringing guns to school. Countless tragedies have occurred involving students and guns. No matter what we have learned from these tragedies, we still haven’t learned enough. 

Shockingly, that learning continued for schools and their communities when on January 6, 2023, a first grader at Richneck Elementary School in Newport News, Virginia brought a gun to school and shot his teacher. How does this continue to  happen? Are we as parents, school personnel, and citizens incapable of learning from our past tragedies?

 Guns aren’t new in schools. In the late 80s and early 90s, I served as an assistant principal at a large high school in Henrico County, Virginia. Usually a tip from a caring student alerted administrators that a student had a gun on school grounds. Luckily in those discoveries, we never had a shooting.

 School systems have responded to this firearm crisis with assorted tactics. Conduct codes have been revised. New local, state, and federal laws have been implemented to curb firearms on school grounds. Comprehensive safety plans are in place. Budgets support the hiring of school resource officers. Often, budgets include metal detectors for scanning students and visitors.Despite these interventions, a student can still arrive at school in possession of a gun. 

Why? Simple answer: America loves guns.

 A June 2021 survey of 10,606 American adults conducted by Pew Research Center found  four-in-ten  adults live in a household with a gun, including 30% who personally own one. That’s a lot of firearms. This doesn’t account for how many firearms are in a person’s ownership without documentation.

Compare those firearm ownership numbers to this data reported by the Annie E. Casey Foundation in August 2022: nearly 24 million children live in  single-parent families in the United States, or about one in every three kids across America.

I wonder if there is a correlation in gun ownership and the erosion of American families and the parenting skills within those families? No matter a single parent, a blended family, or a traditional family, parenting is tough, demanding work. How many of the school shooting tragedies and possession of a firearm on school grounds are linked to that erosion and the challenges of parenting? 

Students, parents, teachers, school system administrators and community leaders have a right to be concerned about school safety, but that safety goes beyond a student bringing a gun.

Somewhere in a school today, it’s likely that at least one student will violently disrupt the learning environment. Disruptive confrontations can include  student to student, student to teacher, student to school administrator interactions. A fight involving multiple students can result in injuries to students and the school and security personnel who intervene.

No matter if a student is in possession of a firearm on school grounds or involved in violent disruptive behavior, both impact morale for non-disruptive students, parents, teachers and administrators. Additionally, that low morale factor seeps into the school’s community when these disruptions are reported in the news and social media.

 Do these disruptive outbursts push parents to withdraw their children from unstable schools and  switch to homeschooling programs or private schools?

The same question must be asked when a teacher resigns; was that resignation grounded in fear of violent students and personal safety concerns?

Meeting the educational needs of our children is challenging work. At this very moment, I think the tension, stress and pressure on teachers in our schools to deliver quality instruction while managing the classroom environment has become unbearable. Despite their valiant efforts, respect and support for teachers are  absent. 

How do we address these challenges?

Acknowledging the erosion of our families is an important step. Yes, in my career in public education, I worked with many supportive single parents. Sadly, that isn’t always the case.

Vicious generational cycles linked to poverty, inadequate housing, low employment, poor physical and mental health, insufficient nutrition and lack of safety are at the heart of this family and community instability.

In acknowledging these shortcomings, we must ask this question: are our current education templates and essential community services at local, state, and federal levels effective in meeting the needs of students and their families? If these templates are ineffective, we must have the courage to do our homework and initiate overdue changes.

Most critical is realizing that our divides, differences, incivilities and inadequate listening skills will only continue to hurt children.

 Pat Conroy, the late American novelist and former educator, wrote: “I want you to know how swift time is. There is nothing as swift. A heartbeat, an eye blink, this is the way life is. It is the only great surprise in life.”

Mr. Conroy is correct; time isn’t on our side.  

We are overdue to acknowledge our public education challenges, but schools cannot be the sole repairer for all that ails our country. 

 Diligent collaboration from every segment of our communities will be needed to improve our schools.

If we continue  to align ourselves in denial, distrust, and division, we will likely destroy the schools that helped to build America.

That isn’t acceptable.

A note from the author: Friends, I was honored that my commentary: The correlation between guns, school violence and the erosion of American families was published in the Virginia Mercury today Friday, March 10, 2023. A special thanks to Commentary Editor, Samantha Willis, for her patience in working with me. 

More long and messy days for churches?

For many years, our church hosted the Upward basketball and cheerleading program for young children. During the last two years, the pandemic prevented us from making this offering.

But, in January of 2023, Upward returned with two nights of practice and games on Saturdays.

Quite a bit of work goes on behind the scenes for the eight week season.That work is coordinated by congregational volunteers, church staff, and the league’s commissioner, Angela Verdery.

Angela and I always carve out time on our Friday schedules to make sure that Trinity Hall will be ready for the players, cheerleaders, coaches, referees, and the families and friends who come out on Saturdays for the games.

Saturday, February 11 was going to be a busy day for the church building.

After the basketball games, our church staff and volunteers would be doing their final preps for Parents Night Out. A program designed to give parents a couple of hours away from their children.

Our children’s director, Jenn Williams, invested many hours working with a team of volunteers to plan every minute of this event. Registering families, planning activities, ordering food, and supervision are a part of this evening.

Both the basketball games and the Parents Night Out were a success. For sure, it was a long day for all of the volunteers. Some started early that morning, and others finished their support when the last child was picked up in the Welcome Center.

When two large scale events are over, it is interesting to walk the building and grounds to see how they held up. Here are somethings I noticed.

Despite two parking spaces being clearly marked for the pastor and associate pastor, I’m always amazed that a guest will ignore the printed words on the curb, and park in these reserved spaces.

Some might argue that it is Saturday, and the pastors aren’t here. But, I can counter that point with a real possibility—the pastor meeting with a family who unexpectedly lost a loved one.

I guess at times pastors must feel like comedian Rodney Dangerfield’s famous line: “I want to tell you, I get no respect.”

Then there is the youngster who every Saturday pops the hinged top off the heat register in the hallway entrance to Trinity Hall.

I can imagine a Saturday morning when the youngster pops the top lose, and instantly the long, rusted cast iron arms of a monster draped in spider webs lurches out from the dark of the register. The cast iron monster gently grabs the perpetrator, and politely asks— please don’t play with my hinged top.

And finally, I’m amazed at the inconsiderate nature of people who: can’t flush a toilet, put trash in a trash can, or drop an empty plastic bottle in a recycling bin.

Yes, I’m aware of the scripture from Matthew 7:3: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?”

No doubt, I’m guilty of whining about the shortcomings of others when my faults are countless.

Coming out of the pandemic, I sense churches are at a crossroads.

This surge of post pandemic energy doesn’t mean that churches have completely rebounded and found their old, reliable friend —normal.

Every week, I stare into our Sunday attendance numbers.

Of particular interest to me are the number of people watching a worship service on-line. In reviewing those totals, quite often we have more people watching on-line than we have attending in person.

I wonder what churches are doing to build a relationship with the people who tune in each week for a worship service? How does a church communicate with these viewers? How might a church follow-up with them, or invite them to other church events?

In the Winter 2023 edition of the College of William and Mary alumni magazine there is an excellent article by Noah Robertson titled Data Revolution. Among the points that caught my attention were data fluency and understanding the multiple variables available for using data.

William and Mary graduate, Nami Choe, Google’s director of marketing data science, notes how the advertising and marketing world are in constant change.

From that change, Choe has learned “that constant change demands more creativity, and you have to be more creative in how you use data to tell stories, because in her mind data’s always messy.”

Choe’s comment about data being “messy” should resonate with churches. Rightly or wrongly, churches in the past and present have been a bit “messy.” Their current messiness is related to a variety of challenges like human sexuality, political division, decline in attendance, shrinking budgets, aging congregations, and tired facilities.

I wonder if churches might benefit from having a director of marketing data science?

Could researchers who mine and analyze data be able to assist churches as they navigate their post-pandemic search for normal?

My hunch is that churches with deep endowments could hire someone to analyze their data.

Yet, it doesn’t take a keen data purveyor to recognize that churches pivot off people.

The success that our church experienced on February 11 was grounded in three essentials: people, time, and program offering.

As churches continue to figure out their post pandemic path, the pursuit of normal should not be a goal.

Churches will be better served if they can offer programming to all age demographics. It will be the creative uniqueness of those offerings that will nudge a person to commit a block of time to attend a noteworthy program.

Churches unwilling to change, adapt, and pursue new possibilities can expect long messy days in their futures.

Churches that continue to offer more of the same, who stubbornly remain grounded in the redundancy of past programming should go ahead and make plans to shutdown.

Saturday, February 11 was a long and at times messy day for our church.

And yet, there was some good news in that day—we had new people in our building, and we never know when the creative quality and uniqueness of a program might inspire a return visit.

Photo by Bill Pike

In fear of March, “maybe”

In Richmond, Virginia on December 24, 2022, the high temperature was 24 degrees. That night, the low reached 8 degrees. The air was bitterly cold.

Six days later on December 30, a high of 69 degrees was recorded.

Tomorrow, Thursday, February 23, 2023, in Richmond, we are expecting unseasonably warm temperatures. We could hit 83. That might be a new record.

Unbelievably, two days later on Saturday, February 25, forecasters are predicting a wintry mix.

This winter, except for a surprising light dusting of snow on the morning of February 2, frozen precipitation has been missing.

Photo by Bill Pike

For several weeks, the yellow blooms of winter jasmine on the sloping banks below a retaining wall in the back parking lot of our church have been a bright spot on dreary gray winter days.

Photo by Bill Pike

On February 8, some of the daffodils in our yard were blooming, and two doors down in a neighbor’s front yard a saucer magnolia tree was in full bloom.

Photo by Bill Pike
Photo by Bill Pike

West of Richmond, out in the valleys of the Blue Ridge, farmers who harvest summer peaches and fall apples are nervous with this early unusual hint of spring.

I keep asking myself where is winter? When are we going to be punched with the right mixture of cold air and moisture colliding to form a winter weather event?

Right now, the original winter storm panic conspirators, grocery stores and the producers of milk and bread are quietly thinking—maybe there is something to this global warming business after all.

And then there is March, an unstable month, whirling with madness. Winter tries to hang around, and spring works to push winter away. This seasonal tug of war is a rollercoaster. A spectacular spring day can be followed by the gray encore of winter returning for one last swipe of misery.

Burlington, North Carolina is featured in the book series Images of America. I was born and raised in Burlington. In the book, on page 125 is a photograph of downtown Burlington in March 1960.

In that photo, streets and sidewalks are covered in a deep snow. In fact, the first three Wednesdays in March of that year, Burlington was hit with consecutive snowstorms. Author, Don Bolden, wrote in the caption: “Spring seemed a distant dream.”

Those consecutive snowstorms are why I fear March after a bewildering mild Virginia winter.

And yet, March brings other fears too.

For college basketball fans March Madness arrives. Fans hope their favorite team will be selected for the NCAA men’s tournament. Those same fans hope their team doesn’t experience the madness of an early upset.

When baseball players report to spring training, they are probably carrying a bit of fear around in their travel bags. Players hope to be injury free, and they hope to earn a spot on a team for the upcoming season.

Mad weather, and the whims of basketball and baseball gods are nothing compared to the fears some people experience.

Today, a student will attend school with the fear of being unmercifully teased and bullied.

A single parent working one full and two part-time jobs, silently wonders how much longer can she maintain this schedule while trying to meet the needs of four school age children.

A doctor will deliver the bad news to a patient who beat cancer once—the cancer has returned, and this time the doctor has no treatment options.

At this very moment, the darkness of fear will push a person to die by suicide.

Over in Ukraine, brave families wonder when the next barrage of Russian fired missiles will hit their neighborhood.

In Syria and Turkey, people who survived the earthquakes fear more instability as their governments struggle to deliver assistance.

Fear is nothing new in our lives.

Fear is a persistent foe.

Fear is in the light, shadows, and darkness.

Depending upon the source, the Bible references fear a lot. One source I checked had 336 citations related to fear.

I think we are supposed to find comfort in scriptures like the following from Isaiah 41:10: “So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”

I wonder what the bullied student, the single parent, the cancer patient, the death by suicide person, the people of Ukraine, Turkey, and Syria might think of those holy words?

And in truth, those holy words, and the challenges found in everyday living in every corner of the world are why I struggle with my Christianity.

Perhaps like me, you have lots of fears deep inside your soul.

One of my biggest fears is America.

I fear our division, our incivility, our disrespect of the truth, our inability to acknowledge, and our reluctance to work together are going to be our end.

Olla Belle Reed was born in the mountains of North Carolina in 1916. Miss Reed became an accomplished folk singer, songwriter, and banjo player. Her song, “I’ve Endured” is a beauty. I became familiar with the song on The Steep Canyon Rangers’ album North Carolina Songbook. At the end of each stanza, Miss Reed asks an important question: “How long can one endure?”

Whether we want to admit it or not, I believe that question is pivotal for each of us. How long can we, our country continue to endure our challenges?

In William Faulkner’s short story “Race At Morning,” the character, Mr. Ernest, makes this observation as the story is ending: “Maybe,” Mister Ernest said. “The best word in our language, the best of all. That’s what mankind keeps going on: Maybe.”

Even though our division, our differences are as wide as the disparity in temperatures from December 24 to February 23, and our irrational thinking can be as maddening as March, maybe, we’ll find the courage to humbly acknowledge our shortcomings and promise to work cooperatively with each other to solve America’s problems.


Twenty-two turnovers

On February 11, 1997, our long-time family friend, Billy Bokkon, gave me two tickets to the University of Virginia and Duke men’s basketball game in Charlottesville. Billy was an avid supporter of Virginia athletics with a soft heart for sacrifice. Billy knew that my son, Andrew, and I would enjoy attending this game.

Disclosure here, we are Duke fans. I grew up in North Carolina. My loyalty to Duke rubbed off on Andrew.

I know Andrew was excited about attending this game, and I know he would have been disappointed if Duke loss.

Duke won, but the win was controversial.

After a review, the conference found that the veteran crew of officials: Rick Hartzell, Tim Higgins, and Zelton Steed had mismanaged the closing seconds of the game with Virginia leading by a point.

Seven days after the game, the Commissioner for the Atlantic Coast Conference(ACC), Gene Corrigan, suspended each official for one game.

The crew had failed to allow a substitution for Virginia. In the sequence of events that followed, a Duke player was fouled and hit two free throw shots that allowed Duke to win 62-61.

Twenty-six years later on February 11, 2023, Virginia and Duke played again in Charlottesville. It was a tough game with both teams fighting for the win.

In the closing seconds of this game, a Duke player was fouled with the score tied as time was expiring. Upon review of the last play, the officials ruled that the foul occurred as time expired. No free throws were shot by the Duke player, and the game went into overtime where Duke loss to Virginia 69-62.

Late on the evening of February 11, 2023, the ACC issued a statement deeming the final play of regulation “an incorrect adjudication of the playing rules.”

Once again, the game was officiated by an experienced crew: Lee Cassell, Jeffrey Anderson, and Tim Clougherty.

I can only begin to imagine how difficult it must be to referee a college basketball game. The players are bigger, stronger, faster, and with a shot clock, the pace of the game is much quicker.

Three officials are assigned to referee a college basketball game. I often wonder if adding a fourth official would help in managing the flow of the game, but I’m not sure it would. Referees are like all of us human beings—imperfect, and not immune from making mistakes.

To become a college basketball referee is not easy. To reach this level takes lots of time, energy, effort, and training. Knowing the rules, being able to interpret the rules when violations occur, staying in shape, communication skills, consistency, diplomacy, and the ability to think on your feet are essential.

Also, there is a common denominator for referees, coaches, and players—pressure.

Coaching a college basketball team is precarious work. The livelihood of the coach is in the hands of players whose ages range from 18-21.

Fans, especially alumni, want very badly for their team to win and to become contenders for the national championship.

Players feel that pressure too. Blue chip players are heavily recruited. Once a blue-chipper commits to a team, everyone expects these players to instantly and consistently perform at a higher level than teammates and peers.

Referees encounter levels of pressure from their supervisors, coaches, players, and fans. In game situations, referees are expected to keep their composure at all times. Sometimes, referees are subjected to volatile and hostile treatment from coaches, players, and spectators. An expectation exists that the referees must get the calls right for both teams, no matter the degree of difficulty.

There is also a quiet pressure developing in research labs. Might the combination of technology, robotics, and artificial intelligence lead to robots officiating college basketball games in the future?

But, there is an additional level of pressure to be considered. In the future will conferences like the ACC be able to recruit, train, and keep competent referees for all sports? How might the erosion of civility, decorum, and sportsmanship impact candidates who are thinking about becoming referees?

In either of the games referenced here, my heart hurts for the players, coaches, referees, and fans.

However, in this most recent meeting between Virginia and Duke, I will always wonder if the outcome of the game might have been decided earlier if Duke’s players had not committed twenty-two turnovers. How many of those Duke turnovers could have been converted to points to expand Duke’s narrow lead?

On the other hand, we seem to quickly forget about all of the split second calls made by referees that are correct.

What we don’t want to consistently happen in a college basketball game is grounded in this Yogi Berra quote: “We made too many wrong mistakes.”

Growing up, I loved college basketball. At this stage of my life, my affection is declining. I sense that money, egos, and the desire to win at all cost are gradually eroding the game.

And despite my whines, I prefer the outcome of the game to be decided by the skills of the players, not dedicated referees.

Even Duke’s Jeremy Roach, the team’s captain said this after the loss: “Duke should never be in a position where the referees can decide the game.”

Mr. Roach was correct.

One of the many street-side basketball goals in our neighborhood. (Photo by Bill Pike)

Well, excuse me, but we need love to come for us

Perhaps, you recall “well excuse me” becoming a catchphrase for comedian Steve Martin.

Interestingly, Mr. Martin used his gifts to find success as a scriptwriter for television, comedian, banjo player, actor, author, screenwriter, director, recording artist, playwright, producer, and art collector.

Not bad for a guy who turns 78 in August.

Mr. Martin’s talents have made me laugh, cry, and ponder.

His work with the North Carolina based bluegrass band, the Steep Canyon Rangers is impressive.

Twice, my wife and I attended the live performance of An Evening You Will Forget For The Rest of Your Life featuring you and Martin Short.

And we have completed watching the first season of Only Murders In The Building on Hulu starring Selena Gomez, Mr. Short, and yourself.

In 2013, Steve Martin and Edie Brickell released the bluegrass album Love Has Come For You.

Early in her career, Miss Brickell fronted the band—Edie Brickell and the New Bohemians. They were one hit wonders with—“What I Am.”

The album Love Has Come For You was produced by Peter Asher. In the early 60s, Mr. Asher was the Peter in the British duo—Peter and Gordon. For this album, Miss Brickell provided the song lyrics and Mr. Martin the music.

Sometimes on the internet, I stumble upon a music video with heartfelt lyrics, quality musicianship, and pretty vocals.

For me, “Love Has Come For You” is one of those songs. It features Miss Brickell singing lead vocal, Mr. Martin on banjo, and the Steep Canyon Rangers backing them.

The song is a story about a young lady who gives birth to a baby boy out of wedlock.

Her family attempts to persuade the mother to give up her new born son.

Yet holding her sweet son in her arms, she realized giving him up wasn’t a possibility.

Plus when she held him, “she could hear the quiet angels sing—love, love, love has come for you.”

Until the day she died, this mother held on to the words of the quiet angels for her son—“love, love, love has come for you.”

In this complicated, messy, weary world of ours, it is very clear that love has not come for some people.

I don’t believe love exists anywhere in Vladimir Putin’s heart.

I think the same for the heart of Adolph Hitler.

No way that Taliban leaders in Afghanistan have love in their hearts by depriving women of education and other freedoms.

With the start of a new year, Americans hold out hope that we will work to be better. But that hope is short lived.

According to a January 24, 2023 report from CNN, three weeks into the new year, the Gun Violence Archive has recorded 39 mass shootings across America.(Paul LeBlanc) I wonder if those trigger pullers ever experienced love in their hearts.

How do we bring love to people in crisis?

How do we love the unloveable?

How do we love when we feel incapable or unwilling?

Tuesday evening, February 7, 2023, the Community Conversations program at our church hosted Richmond author, Chip Jones.

Mr. Jones has written a compelling book: The Organ Thieves— The Story of the First Heart Transplant in the Segregated South.

During the hour long conversation, Mr. Jones was quite remarkable in answering questions.

A question near the end referenced a tense courtroom scene from the movie, A Few Good Men.

The prosecuting attorney with determined intensity tells the witness on the stand that “I want the truth.”

And the witness fiercely responds to the attorney with “You can’t handle the truth.”

I asked Mr. Jones if the racial divide in America is grounded in our inability to handle the truth of our shortcomings?

Part of Mr. Jones’ response was linked to a quote from Richard Rohr, a Franciscan friar, who founded the Center for Action and Contemplation: “As any good therapist will tell you, you cannot heal what you do not acknowledge, and what you do not consciously acknowledge will remain in control from within, festering, and destroying you and those around you.”(Admitting Our Wrongdoings 11-26-2015 CAC)

Love can’t heal, if we can’t acknowledge the mistakes from our past and present.

In the song “Love Has Come To You” the unwed mother acknowledged the love she felt and saw in her son.

With that confirmation, there was no turning back. The mother held for a lifetime the healing love from the quiet angels singing.

If I’m lucky, I’ll turn seventy in June.

Well excuse me, but, my heart is overdue to acknowledge my shortcomings and the shortcomings of America.

We need to acknowledge the festering inside our American hearts.

Failing to make this acknowledgement only ensures more heartbreak.

The quiet angels are nudging.

We need to let love come for us.

Cover of Mr. Martin’s book Born Standing Up (Photo by Bill Pike. I own a copy of the book)

The pylons of Christmas are best not forgotten

Ken Simmons, Johnny Neese, Mac Abernathy, Richard Abernathy, Mary Jo Abernathy, Terry Johnston, Michael Johnston, Tommy Bennett, no hall of fame names here, just neighbor kids who sometimes found their way to the southern extension of Lambeau Field where the front yards of the Simmons and Pike families linked together to make a football field.

It wasn’t regulation size, but the graveled driveways were the end zones, sidewalks leading to the front doors of each home were out of bounds on the north side, while a drainage ditch on the south side marked out of bounds. Each yard had a couple of trees, but nothing to obstruct the main playing surface.

We played after school, any free moment on Saturdays, but I can’t remember playing on Sunday after church. No helmets, no pads, a few disagreements, no illegal hits, and never a question about whether a touchdown was really a touchdown.

I’m not sure about your perspective, but from my spider mite sized brain I’m weary of football games where the game officials must decide if a player scored a touchdown based upon whether the nose of the football broke the plane of the goal or if a player was able to graze the pylon with the football before he was shoved out of bounds.

To me this isn’t even worthy of replaying the video from a zillion different camera angles for some rule interpreting authority to make a decision. It is a simple matter of a rule change. To score a touchdown, a player must be in possession of the football, and must have his entire body in the end zone with the football securely in his possession. No exceptions, whole body, not pinky toe or finger, whole body with the football.

With this reasonable rule change, I’m sure the makers of pylons will be disappointed that their product will no longer be the focus of attention in determining the scoring of a touchdown, but I’m certain they will eventually find other sports for their product like ping-pong, gator wrestling, or large vegetable chucking which is scheduled to become a summer Olympic sport in 2020.

A football field pylon(Photo by Bill Pike with a special assist from Chris Rollison, Student Activities Director, Hermitage High School)

Definition research for pylon, finds a number of uses for the word, and its origin can be traced to the Greek language meaning “gateway.” Today, we associate pylon as a marker or tower, but a pylon can also be used to provide support.

Thirty-eight days ago we were celebrating Christmas, a season full of markers of support, and tomorrow is the Super Bowl, a football game that has become a national extravaganza with so much media hype that the basics of the game can be overlooked. I often wonder if the basics of Christmas are overlooked once it is over? Is the significance of Christmas still with me today, or have I tucked it away in my heart until next December?

In answering that questions, perhaps, I would be wise to consider the scripture from Jeremiah Chapter 31, verse 21: “Set up road markers for yourself, make yourself signposts; consider well the highway, the road by which you went.” I can whine about decisions related to touchdowns and pylons, but I suspect I would be better served if I push that whine energy into not forgetting the pylons of Christmas. How might I do this?

It’s a matter of redirecting my journey on the road of life by improving my focus on the markers and signposts I need to navigate the ups and downs of living. Part of that refocusing means a commitment to revisit the road by which I have traveled. To do this I must strengthen my daily devotional reading, scripture reflection, and prayer while looking for more growth opportunities at our church.

For the last several years, it has been pretty clear to me that the highway of life is more manageable with road markers and signposts from the good Lord to guide me. I’m not willing to continue my daily journey without guidance and direction from the good Lord and his Son. How about you? Have you tucked away the pylons of Christmas, and redirected your focus to less religious markers and signposts on your journey?

Author’s note: This piece “The pylons of Christmas are best not forgotten” was published as a Faith and Values column in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on Saturday, February 1, 2014. The section B Metro editor was John Hoke.

When their voices were young: The Beach Boys Sail On Sailor 1972

At some point after lunch on Thursday, November 2, 1972, we piled into the 1966 Chevrolet Chevelle. My Greensboro College classmate, Butch Sherrill, had somehow talked his younger brother, Robert, into loaning him the car for a road trip.

That Chevelle, painted Petty Blue, was our ride to Boone, North Carolina. In honor of Butch’s birthday, we were going to the Beach Boys concert that evening at Appalachian State University(ASU).

The we in the car were Butch, Steve Hodge, maybe his girlfriend, Gwen, who attended Guilford College, our classmate, Rita Jones, and me. Butch’s girlfriend, Marian, was a student at ASU. She would join us for the concert.

Even though we would be driving into the Blue Ridge Mountains, fall was not in the air. The temperature in Greensboro would top out at 76 degrees that day after an overnight low of 51.

We made it to Boone with no problems. We headed toward Varsity Gym where the concert would take place. My friend from Burlington, Jeff Aaron, was part of the student committee that booked concerts for ASU.

I tracked down Jeff, and he was able to sneak me backstage where the Beach Boys were rehearsing. We worked out a strategy for holding seats in the front rows, and then we waited.

Earlier in the year, with another college friend, Dan Callow, I had seen the Beach Boys in concert on March 28 at Cole Field House on the campus of the University of Maryland.

That night at Cole Field House, I sensed the Beach Boys were figuring out how to make the addition of two new bandmates work.

Seven months later at ASU, the Beach Boys had figured that out. These shows were preparation for November 23, the last concert of this tour would mark their return to Carnegie Hall for a live recording.

In 1972, the Beach Boys had been busy. Late in the spring, the band released a new album: Carl and the Passions—“So Tough.” That album featured two new members in the group, Blondie Chaplin and Ricky Fataar. Blondie and Ricky were from South Africa, a part of The Flame, a band that had recorded and released an album on the Beach Boys’ Brother Records label.

Also at some point in 1972, Bruce Johnston, who ably filled in for Brian Wilson, when Brian gave up touring had decided to leave the Beach Boys. Apparently, Bruce and Beach Boys’ manager, Jack Rieley, were unable to resolve their perspectives.

From 1970-1973, Jack Rieley helped to transform the Beach Boys. That transformation impacted their creativity in the recording studio and made the group a hot concert ticket.

By the summer of 1972, Mr. Rieley had convinced the Beach Boys to temporarily pull up their California roots, including their recording studio and families, and move to Holland.

They made this massive logistical move, and once the studio was reassembled in a barn like building in the rural farmlands near Baambrugge, the band began recording their next album to be titled—Holland.

When the Holland album was completed, the Beach Boys returned to America, and on November 1 began a tour performing at many college campuses in the South, Midwest, and Northeast.

Fast forward to December 2, 2022, Capitol Records released the box set: The Beach Boys Sail On Sailor 1972.

Box set cover, lower left Mike Love, above him Carl Wilson, middle top Brian Wilson, upper right Blondie Chaplin, center looking down Dennis Wilson, beside Dennis, Ricky Fataar, and bottom right with his eyes closed Al Jardine.

Box set is a misleading term, as fans were really treated to a 48 page hardbound book complete with photos and interviews about these recordings that include six CDs full of music. This package features the albums Carl and the Passions—“So Tough” and Holland with many unreleased outtakes from these sessions.

But for me, the center piece of this release is the Carnegie Hall concert from Thanksgiving night 1972. That evening, the band performed two back to back shows at 8:00 and 11:30. At this point, you should probably sit down. Tickets for that concert were $5.00, $5.50, $6.50, and $7.00.

Advertisement for the concert, from my attic archives (Photo by Bill Pike)

For fifty years, the Carnegie Hall tapes sat silently in climate controlled vaults. I sense those tapes were quietly hoping that someday they would be released. As a long time follower of the Beach Boys, I was rooting for the tapes to be converted into an album for release too.

Long after I’m gone, future music historians will revisit the legacy of the Beach Boys. No one will deny the blitz of hot hits from 1961-1966. They will discover the doldrums from 1967-1969, and when these musical sleuths uncover the recordings from 1970-1973, I think they will be stunned.

For me, that is my favorite era of the Beach Boys. I love their energy. Every band member contributes to the songwriting. The production values are high, and the recordings are deftly captured by recording engineer, Stephen Desper. Their still vibrant harmonies are beautifully present. And when the group performs live, there is an undeniable boldness in these concerts. The Beach Boys 1972-Live At Carnegie Hall captures the boldness of the songs selected to be performed that night.

Album cover

In 1972, the Beach Boys performed 101 concerts. Seventy-one of those were in America and thirty overseas.( I sense when this fall tour started, the group knew, and must have been thinking internally— ok, we’ve got to use these shows prior to Carnegie Hall to make sure we are rehearsed and ready.

They arrived at Carnegie Hall ready to play and sing their hearts out. Of course, I’m biased, but my old ears believe they did play and sing their hearts out.

However, there is also a collision coming, a collision that served to foreshadow how the boldness of their concerts in the early 70s would gradually erode the Beach Boys into into an oldies band in the latter stages of their legacy. That collision is noted in the Carnegie Hall concert.

When manager Jack Rieley introduces the band, he respectfully asks the audience to hold their song requests until the end of the second set.

At some point, in the concert, singer, Mike Love, becomes annoyed with an impatient fan. Mr. Love almost uses the “f-word” in trying to keep this fan quiet. The great irony here is that Mr. Love is an ardent practitioner of Transcendental Meditation.

To confirm his convictions, during a pause between songs, Mr. Love quickly gives a personal endorsement for Transcendental Meditation encouraging the audience to check out classes in New York City.

Clearly in Mr. Love’s meltdown moment, any calmness or composure from his meditative spiritualness was tossed overboard.

For this concert, 24 songs are performed. From that 24, four songs were from the Surf’s Up and So Tough albums, and three were new songs from the Holland album that was released in January 1973. With the remaining 17 songs, 13 were hit records. Chances are the restless fan probably heard a song that he wanted to hear.

Thankfully that disruptive tension was short-lived as the beauty and power of the music seems to subdue the agitation for the remainder of the show.

Darryl Dragon, who the Beach Boys nicknamed Captain Keyboards, is on the piano, organ, and Moog synthesizer. Also, his future wife, Toni Tennille, is contributing background vocals. Mr. Dragon’s keyboard playing sparkles through the recording, but especially on “Help Me Rhonda.”

I’m not sure there is a prettier Beach Boys love song than “Only With You.” Fresh from the Holland recording sessions, here, the song is performed to heartfelt perfection.

I love the concussion of the percussion that is pounded out after the a cappella section on “Heroes and Villains.” I had never forgotten that thunder from the ASU show.

Blondie Chaplain and Ricky Faatar sound like they have been in the band for a long time rather than a few months. Blondie’s soulful vocals and guitar work add to the energy, and Ricky’s drumming is quick, steady, and creative.

Unlike the Beatles, the Beach Boys never gave up touring, and as they pushed into the early 70s, that hard work on the road made them a tight performing unit.

Even the most difficult of their songs performed live reveal their musicianship and tender care for their trademark harmonies. Lots of that concert success can be attributed to the youngest of the Wilson brothers, Carl.

During the encore with spunky confidence, Carl leads the band through “California Girls,” “Surfin’USA,” and “Fun, Fun, Fun.” Then he turns the Carnegie Hall audience on its collective ears as the Beach Boys blister through “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” Yes, the Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.”

I’ve never forgotten the concert at Appalachian State University. Too bad that the Carnegie Hall tapes had to wait 50 years for release.

Was the wait worth it?

Speaking solely for myself, my answer is yes.

During the listening, a handful of times, my old eyes have moistened when the timeless blending of the voices and instruments strummed my soul.

In 1972 Mike Love was 31, Al Jardine 30, Dennis Wilson 27, and Carl Wilson 26. My goodness, they were young. Yet, even in 1972, it felt like they had been around forever. Sadly, Dennis drowned in 1983, and Carl lost his battle with cancer in 1998.

Personally, I hope Capitol Records doesn’t plan anymore box set releases for the Beach Boys.

After 1975, I feel the Beach Boys suffered a “reverse storm surge.” It seemed as though all of their creative energy had been drained from the group. Never did they recapture, the beauty and brilliance of the music they created from 1970-1973. I wonder if the living members of the Beach Boys feel the same as I do about those remarkable years?

Back on November 2, 1972, I wish we could have driven that Petty Blue 1966 Chevrolet Chevelle to the back of Varsity Gym where all of the band’s equipment had been loaded in for the show.

I imagine if the car loving Dennis Wilson had been out on that loading dock and seen that beauty, he would have flagged Butch down for a ride or a drive.

I’m certain Butch would have obliged Dennis’ request. If that storybook drive had taken place, then Butch had a memory of a lifetime to share with his brother, Robert.

Perhaps, that is the beauty of a wishful daydream.

Then again, a daydream can also be a chance to recall a priceless memory, a concert that has never left me, shared with good friends, and our pals, the Beach Boys when their voices were still young, and we were too.

From my attic archives, black and white photo by John Craft, concert review by Dave Wright. (Photo by Bill Pike)

Author’s note: A belated thanks to Robert Sherrill for loaning Butch the car. Thanks to my attic archives, and a heartfelt thanks to our three children Lauren, Andrew, and Elizabeth who surprised their ancient father with this boxed set gift at Christmas 2022.

Post Christmas Assessment: Hope

It is a reasonable question— “How was your Christmas?”

In truth, we ask lots of “how was” questions.

How was your vacation?

How was your weekend?

How was your trip to the urologist?

How was your car buying experience?

When I’m asked the Christmas question, I am very tempted to say, “I’m thankful that Christmas is over.”

I wonder what poinsettias, door wreaths made from the limbs of evergreen trees, and wrapping paper would tell us about Christmas?

In their short life span, I wonder what these traditional items might say to us as they quietly observe our Christmas ways.

Might these non-human observers say to us: these nice folks need to slow down, the pace is too hectic, perfection— forget it, keep Christmas simple, don’t over extend, if Christmas is grounded in love, shouldn’t the followers of Christmas be able to share this love everyday of the coming new year?

Here’s what I remember about Christmas 2022.

December 23, our four grandchildren gathered around the kitchen table decorating cookies.

The four grands and their cookies. Ably assisted by Uncle Andrew (Photo by Bill Pike)

Christmas Eve, the weather, the temperature was brutally and bitterly cold.

Next, I spent early Christmas morning trying to find a convenience store that sold Monterrey Jack cheese. That was the one cheese that had been forgotten in making Brad’s pasta dish. Brad is one of my wife’s nephews.

It has become a tradition in our family to feature Brad’s recipe for dinner, either on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. I’m sure cardiologists see dollars signs with all of the rich artery clogging cheeses used to fix this dish.

At a Sheetz on West Broad Street, I found a reasonable substitute, Colby Jack.

Late on Christmas afternoon, an unwanted and unwelcome intruder arrived at our home. A stomach virus hit my 94 year old mother-in-law.

A few hours later, that trifling germ consumed our youngest daughter.

With this invasion, a tension filled our house. We all wondered who would be next? Hand scrubbing and Lysol spray became our new friends.

Our son-in-law headed back to North Carolina on Monday. That night the stomach bug welcomed Doug to the club.

That bad bug briefly messed with our son and his two daughters.

For whatever reason, this naughty nuisance really whacked my mother-in-law. Dehydration and weakness caused her to pass out and fall. Luckily, Betsy and I were there to catch her, and that prompted a 911 call.

My wife’s sister-in-law is a doctor, obgyn, she arrived before the paramedics, and found my mother-in-law’s vitals to be stable.

The paramedics with all of the latest equipment confirmed that original assessment. As I watched this team work, I thought to myself, we are lucky to live in a community with compassionate and well-trained rescue personnel.

But, we were also lucky that Betsy and I were with my mother-in-law when this collapse occurred. Her passing out could have been much worse.

Gradually, our house guests recovered and departed.

At some point, I worked my way back to Trinity. We have a 10 a.m. worship service on New Year’s Day. I needed to check on our volunteers who had been removing the seasonal Advent decorations.

During the weeks of Advent, volunteers work to keep the poinsettias looking fresh. They water and rearrange the deep red flowers, especially, if one is looking weary.

A weary poinsettia post Christmas (Photo by Bill Pike)

The wreaths are subject to the whims of Mother Nature—sun, rain, wind, and cold can quickly fade a healthy green wreath to a brittle khaki color.

It’s tough being a real live Christmas decoration.

But, I think it is tougher being a real live human being at Christmas.

Truthfully, I have no right to whine about Christmas.

At Christmas, I’m always around family, and I’ve never missed a Christmas.

Yet, I know Christmas can be as miserable as a stomach virus for someone who is alone with no family. That lonely person might feel just as worn as a frail poinsettia or a now drab door wreath.

On Tuesday, January 3, my wife and I made one last trip to see the Christmas lights at Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens.

I continue to be amazed at how strands of colorful lights transform this winter landscape. Others must feel the same way too. The garden’s paths begin to fill as the fading twilight gently shifts into darkness.

Colorful Christmas lights at Lewis Ginter (Photo by Bill Pike)

As we finish up our self-guided tour, we stop in the garden’s library and a meeting room.

In the meeting room, a local group of model train hobbyists have an amazing display set up featuring circus trains— including all of the matching props to fill in the landscape. This impressive exhibition makes adults and children stop in their footsteps. They stare intently at the moving trains as they weave through the countryside.

I’ve always appreciated artwork created by elementary school students. That admiration is extended to the art teachers who guide and support their students in this creative process. In the library, we were treated to a display of Christmas trees decorated by students at local elementary schools.

Instantly, I was impressed by these creations. To me the student art work reveals the pure innocence of their hearts.

One tree from Holladay Elementary School really tugged at my old heart. These fifth grade students had created “The Hope Tree.”

The Hope tree (Photo by Bill Pike)

Along with the decorations they created, each student had written his/her hope for the visitors observing this display.

For many years, my brother-in-law, Eric Henry, in Burlington, North Carolina has been a part of the team and ownership of TS Designs. Sure, I’m biased, but TS Designs makes the best t-shirts in the world. Yes, I said best in the world.

Maybe next Christmas, TS Designs can offer this long sleeved t-shirt.

On the front will be this question: How do grumpy old geezers survive Christmas?

Under the question will be the sad faces of many grumpy geezers.

But on the back of the t-shirt will be these words—They have hope.

Under “they have hope” will be quotes about hope like the following:

“Hope fills the holes of my frustration in my heart.” – Emanuel Cleaver

“To live without hope is to cease to live.” – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

“Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement. Nothing can be done without hope and confidence.” – Helen Keller

“Love recognizes no barriers. It jumps hurdles, leaps fences, penetrates walls to arrive at its destination full of hope.” – Maya Angelou

”In fact, hope is best gained after defeat and failure, because then inner strength and toughness is produced.” –  Fritz Knapp

I hope that you and your families survived Christmas.

And despite my contrariness with Christmas, I hope that we all make it to the next one.

Another church shutters in NC. What others must do to survive.

On November 20, 2022, the church I grew up in held its last worship service in the Burlington, N C building where it operated for generations.

After careful deliberations and following the protocols established in the discipline of the Methodist church, the congregation at Davis Street Methodist Church voted to shut the church doors on Davis Street near downtown and move to a new location.

Sadly, Davis Street isn’t alone in their actions. Aging congregations, tired buildings, economic instability, and the inability to attract new members are among the challenges congregations face across America.

This downward spiral is in sharp contrast to the growth churches experienced post World War II. At that time, church planters had a “if you build it, they will come,” mentality. Churches were built and people came.

Clearly, the pandemic impacted church operations and attendance. But truthfully, churches were already experiencing difficulties prior to the pandemic. Lots of data is available regarding this significant decline.

The latest Pew Research Center report from September 2022 doesn’t hold much hope for a reversal of this spiral. Churches and their congregations aren’t immune from political division, challenges to their doctrines related to sexual orientation, and a longstanding stubborn resistance to change.

Growing up at Davis Street, I don’t recall political bickering, nor conversations about sexual orientation. However, the “turf and personalities” of a church could collide if an impactful change was proposed.

During my growing up years at Davis Street, the pace of the world was slower. Sundays were quiet. Only essential businesses were open. Unless there was sickness, our family was in church every Sunday.

Today, our pace is entirely different. With many retail businesses open, Sunday is a popular day for shopping.

But there is a busyness impacting families and the choices they make over the course of a weekend. In these over-extended families, church might not be on their top five list of planned activities.

In an article in the Spring 2022 edition of the William and Mary Alumni Magazine, Brian Shallcross, General Manager of the minor league baseball team, the Bowie Baysox, talks about how his organization works to bring people to a game.

When Shallcross started his career, the focus was on “discretionary income,” the extra income a family might have to spend.

Now, Shallcross states the focus is on “discretionary time.” Marketers attempt to figure out how to persuade a family that a baseball game is the best option from the multiple options they consider during a weekend.

For churches attempting to rebuild by focusing on young families, it is critical for pastors, staffs, and congregational leaders to understand “discretionary time.” Churches who acknowledge the impact of “discretionary time” might rethink worship schedules that could be more appealing for young families.

But, I also wonder if congregations become too mired in their own church busyness? Does this church busyness and reliance upon worn practices impair congregational vision? Unfortunately, I believe the answer is yes.

If churches expect to survive this decline, their pastors, staff, and laity must be willing to take risks. Fear of taking risks, failure to implement overdue changes will only ensure more church doors closing.

With this closing of Davis Street, I imagine some significant seismic shifting came from the graves of its founders. Honestly, I admire the congregation for making this difficult decision.

If churches expect to exist beyond the dismal predictions, their leaders and congregations must make some tough decisions.

I believe churches still have a place in our communities.

But their future depends upon their ability to confront the fear of change.

Note from the author: I was honored to have this op-ed piece published in three North Carolina newspapers on Monday, January 23, 2023. The piece appeared in: The Charlotte Observer, Raleigh News & Observer, and the Durham Herald-Sun.

Cathedrals, Cigarettes, Cobblestones

Late in the spring of 2022, I thought my sister-in-law, Abby, who I consider to be a brilliant woman had lost her mind.

Abby was proposing that our families take my 94 year old mother-in-law on a European river cruise. This trip would be a celebration of my mother-in-law’s upcoming birthday in February 2023, number 95.

All I could imagine was a disaster for my mother-in-law—a devastating fall, an unexpected medical emergency. Luckily, by the grace of God, none of my fears became reality.

Perhaps what is even a greater miracle is that I secured a passport in time for the trip. That’s right, my first passport.

My wife, the Commander Supreme, and our youngest daughter, Elizabeth, coached me on the nuances of saying the right words when I had my passport application interview. They were concerned that I might say something foolish, and I would be red-flagged to a no travel list.

I will be forever grateful to Abby for organizing the trip. In that gratefulness is my Commander Supreme too. I know at times during the trip she felt like she was marshaling two children, her mother and me. Yes, we had some moments of intense traveling impatience, but somehow we completed the trip intact.

Would I go again? Yes, but I need a couple of years to recover.

The flight back home was long, really, really long, and the darn flight tracker provided by the airline didn’t work. Boo technology failure.

Airplanes continue to fascinate me, but those long flights really wear on me. And it is clear as mud that airlines care more about pennies than they do about their passengers. Too bad Piedmont isn’t still in business.

Yet, I’m amazed at how many people are working behind the scenes to make all of this happen. Traveling with a 94 year old allowed us to see more of what takes place in the background.

Every place we visited was special. I can’t name a favorite, but I will give lots of credit to the weather. Aside from one rainy day, the weather was October perfect.

For sure, the cathedrals will stay with me. No matter the city, I’ve never seen anything like those cathedrals. The architecture, the art, the details, and the endurance to build them and to continue to maintain these structures is without question remarkable. But today, in their stunning opulence, I wonder how the needs of the people they serve are being met?

Another surprise for me was tobacco smoke. A lot of people in the places we visited are still smokers of cigarettes. It was so prevalent that I kept playing in my brain the Merle Travis and Tex Williams’ song—“Smoke! Smoke! Smoke!(That Cigarette).

I kept thinking about one line from the song: “Tell St. Peter at the Golden Gate, I hate to make him wait, but I just gotta have another cigarette.” I guess when their time comes to meet St. Peter, there will be lots of European smokers at the gates of those cathedrals smoking their last cigarette just before their funerals.

But adding to charm of the age of all the places our feet took us were the cobblestones.

I imagine the supplier of cobblestones from Budapest to Passau lives on a remote tropical island faraway from river cruise tourists, cathedrals, and cigarette smoke.

I loved the worn beauty of the cobblestones and their patterns in alleys and public squares. I suspect the cobblestones could tell us many stories about the ups and downs of life.

And, I would be amiss, if I didn’t compliment, Viking, the cruise line, who took care of us.

I’m sure Viking has some imperfect moments, but I can’t say enough about their personnel, the itinerary, the food, and the ship.

Let me put it this way. Viking does everything they can to spoil their guests so that the guests will want to return.

Yes, they did spoil me. And, at some point in this old life of mine, I hope the Commander Supreme and I can return.

Until that day, I will hold the Danube River cruise deep in my aging heart.

Cobblestones in Linz, Austria (Photo by Bill Pike)