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May 22, 2015
Karl Barth

The venerable Swiss theologian, Karl Barth, was the author of a massive, thirteen-volume work, Church Dogmatics. Dr. Carlisle Marney once quipped about Dr. Barth’s work, “Nobody knows that much about God.” Like so many other theologians, Dr. Barth’s wordiness sometimes interfered with clarity. When he discussed the problem of evil, he presented it in cosmic terms.

When I was named a Merrill Fellow at Harvard Divinity School, I was selected because I was a pastor. My role was to assist the faculty by bringing a practical, down-to-earth perspective to the rarified atmosphere of academic studies.

Professor Art McGill invited me to attend his Systematic Theology lectures.   I listened as he explained the fine points of Barth’s idea of cosmic evil. The class of bright students had that deer-in-the-headlights look as they struggled to understand the concept.

Finally, Professor McGill turned to me as a drowning swimmer looks for a lifeguard. “Pastor Neely, can you help us?”

I, too, had difficulty understanding Barth, and I certainly was not qualified to teach the theology of the esteemed professor from Switzerland.

As is often the case, all that I could think to do was to tell a story. Read more…


May 17, 2015

The black oil sunflower seeds that fill our birdfeeders beckon a variety of feathered friends.  Bright red cardinals and brilliant goldfinch join perky black-capped chickadees, tufted titmice, and Carolina wrens for a quick snack. The nutritious morsels also attract other birds considered by some to be less desirable. Among those are mourning doves.

Clare, who makes no claim to being an ornithologist, refers to the large brownish-grey birds as “big ol’ doofus birds that eat all the food.”

The birds we usually call doves are rock doves. They come in several varieties:  turtlenecks, mourning doves, ring-necks, diamond doves, and homing pigeons. Read more…


May 9, 2015

My dad and I often enjoyed having breakfast together. I took a small journal with me on those occasions so I could take notes on his many stories and his unique turn of phrase. On April 3, 2011, Dad died. Just one week after his death, I made my last entry in that journal.

Last week a friend of mine lost his mother. While her death was not a total surprise, it did come much sooner than expected. We talked about the woman that had shaped his life, as mothers do. In his grief he recalled many of the things his dear mother had taught him. He especially mentioned her love of gardening and her deep faith. Following our conversation we had a prayer together.

Later that day, I was prompted to search for that old journal I kept during those last years with Dad. I thumbed back through the pages recalling breakfast at the Skillet or at Dolline’s or at the Beacon. Looking back through the journal I came across an entry that reminded me of Dad and a note I made four years before his death. Read more…


May 2, 2015

Clare and I enjoy dining out occasionally. We make a habit of supporting locally owned businesses, restaurants included. I am convinced that when local business thrives, the community as a whole benefits.

As I write these words, we are ordering a supper of take-out food from our favorite Chinese eatery. When our children were small we made a point of celebrating Chinese New Year with Chinese food.

Our favorites for various members of our family are Thai, German, Italian, Greek, Indian, Cuban, and Middle Eastern cuisines. We enjoy, sushi, crepes, falafel, as well good old Southern cooking.

A unanimous choice for our children and grandchildren is Mexican food. How many times have I ordered kids cheese quesadillas with rice?

Cinco de Mayo, like Chinese New Year, is a day to enjoy special food. On the fifth of May many Mexican restaurants in the United States will be crowded with hungry customers.

A Bronco Mexican Restaurant is within walking distance of our home. The good folks who operate the business have become friends of ours over the years. Last week I stopped by one morning before they opened for lunch. I spoke with Maria, the manager. I specifically wanted to know about Cinco de Mayo. When I asked she smiled and explained.

The celebration of Cinco de Mayo is very different in the United States than it is in Mexico. For most Americans, the fifth of May offers an excuse to drink tequila, eat Mexican food, and party. In Mexico, though, the holiday isn’t nearly as big a cause for celebration. In the United States, Cinco de Mayo festivities can be found in a multitude of cities with large Mexican-American populations.

Maria named Denver, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Phoenix, and Chicago as examples. “In those places Cinco de Mayo is like a big carnival. In Mexico it is much quieter.” Read more…


April 25, 2015
Eastern Bluebird and Rainbow

Ever since Noah’s clumsy gopher wood ark settled on Mount Ararat, the rainbow has held a special fascination for the people of planet Earth, Even the busiest, most preoccupied among us will pause a moment and a take a deep breath at the sight of a colorful arch in the clouds.

At age seventeen I stood at an overlook above the Zambezi River in the heart of Africa to marvel at the splendor of Victoria Falls. David Livingston, the Scottish missionary and explorer, named the specular cataract for his queen. The African people know the place as Mosi-oa-Tunya or the Smoke that Thunders. On sunny days there is always a rainbow in the mist above the falls.

When I was nineteen I traveled with my brothers along old Route 66, also known as the Mother Road. To the west thunderheads loomed over a mesa somewhere between Albuquerque and Santa Fe, New Mexico. A complete rainbow framed by black clouds arched above the burnt red desert.

Years later in the nation of Israel I witnessed two of my most memorable rainbows. While I was having a meal on a rainy afternoon at a kibbutz atop the Golan Heights, the sun peeked out from behind grey clouds and a vivid rainbow arched to the Sea of Galilee below.

Three days later on Mount Carmel amid flowering redbud trees, I saw a rainbow stretch from the top of the mountain down to the Mediterranean. The Holy Land was made even more sacred by these experiences.

The science of rainbows is simple physics. Sunlight passes through raindrops at the proper angle. The water droplets act as tiny prisms, and they split light into a spectrum. Maybe it is the poet in me, but I much prefer the myths to the science. Read more…


April 19, 2015

Last week I learned something from my students at the University of South Carolina Upstate. Students and teachers often have a bottled drink in the classroom. I try to always have water, especially during allergy seasons.

Last Monday before my New Testament class I asked, “What is the difference between Diet Coca-Cola and Coke Zero?”

None of us knew the answer.

Here’s what I discovered later on the internet. The only real difference between the two drinks is in the proportions of the ingredients, which actually give different flavor profiles. The reason for two different products is a marketing decision. The Coca-Cola Company believes that men are more reluctant to buy Diet Coke because the word diet is associated with women. Coke Zero has been produced to appeal to men. Read more…


April 12, 2015

I have been reading The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd. The book, best described as historical fiction, is set in Charleston, South Carolina, in the early nineteenth century. It is inspired by the true story of Sarah and Angelina Grimké, early leaders in the women’s suffrage and abolitionist movement. The book relates the coming-of-age story of two characters. Sarah is the daughter of a prominent lawyer. Hetty is a slave assigned to Sarah. Neither is a wilting magnolia. Both are determined women, each with a strong defiant streak. I am not surprised that questions of God and Christian ethics arise throughout the novel.

Years ago, even while I was a seminary student, I realized that some of the best theology is not written by theologians. Works of fiction often require the reader to struggle with religious as well as moral issues. Theology and ethics are best learned through enrolling in the proverbial college of hard knocks. Fiction is one of the best ways to tell the truth about life. Read more…


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