The pile of week-old snow covered with black grim by the side of a large parking lot was a reminder of last week’s snow fall.
By all accounts, Jonas was one of the most severe winter storms on record. Nineteen states were affected by the storm last week as it moved across the south and up the eastern seaboard. More than a quarter of a million homes lost power. Major cities, some with up to thirty-one inches of snow accumulation, were paralyzed. At least thirty-one people died as a direct result of the storm. Read more…
Last Tuesday, I attended the meeting of the Rotary Club of Spartanburg. Being a member of the group, I enjoy good friends, good food, and consistently good programs. Dave Zabriskie, a local banker who is also a Rotarian, usually plays a grand piano while the rest of us enjoy a delicious meal. As I ate and talked with friends seated at the table with me, I noticed that Dave was playing a familiar tune. It was written and recorded by Billy Joel. The song, “Piano Man,” brought to mind a story I remembered from nearly ten years earlier.
On April 7, 2005, an unidentified man was picked up by police as he was wandering the streets in Kent, in England. Dressed in a suit and tie, he was soaking wet. He was unresponsive to their questions, remaining silent. The police took him to Medway Maritime Hospital.
There, he was presented a pen and paper by the hospital staff in the hope he would write his name. Instead, he drew a detailed sketch of a grand piano. When they took him to a piano, he played music of various types ranging from classical music by Tchaikovsky to pop tunes by The Beatles. He played for four hours.
He was admitted to the psychiatric unit and dubbed the Piano Man by the hospital staff.
The name given the troubled man came from the lyrics of the song by Billy Joel.
Several years ago, Clare and I went to Newberry, South Carolina, for the town’s autumn festival. The owner of a bookstore there asked me if I would come and talk about my books and sign a few copies.
While I was in this quaint bookstore, I looked through the section of used books, one of my favorite things to do. I love to browse through the used book section in old bookstores. A title caught my eye, Prisoners of Hope. I recognized immediately that the author had lifted this phrase from the prophet Zechariah. It is one that I have paid attention to before in my own devotional reading. I had not read this book, written in 1900 by a woman named Mary Johnston.
The story, set in Colonial Virginia, is about a family that came to Virginia by way of the Chesapeake Bay. The family did not come as wealthy planters. They came as indentured servants, therefore the title. Those people who came to this country as indentured servants had the hope that they would have a new beginning. People who were prisoners settled much of colony of Georgia. Most of them had been transported from debtor’s prison in England.
One branch of Clare’s family came to Georgia. Her family is quick to say their ancestors were not in debtor’s prison, but they were guards on the ships bring the prisoners to the New World.
I met with a friend I had not seen in several years. Born and bred in Spartanburg, he had been living in China working there as an English teacher. Following a traffic mishap, he endured an ordeal beyond what most of us could ever imagine. He spent eight months imprisoned in a forced labor camp China. At night he was confined in a concrete cell with 29 other men. The cell had no chairs and no beds. By day, he worked making Christmas lights destined for market in the United States. I doubt that I will every again look as Christmas lights without thinking of him. As difficult as his imprisonment was, it became the source of an inward journey recorded in journals. Those notes will eventually become a published memoir.
When I was in seminary, I read Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl. The book chronicles his experiences as an inmate in both Auschwitz and Dachau, Nazi concentration camps during the Holocaust. Frankl’s writing details the various ways inmates find meaning during imprisonment. Frankl’s words prompted me to pay attention to other important works written from a prison cell.
As a part of my functional major in pastoral care and pastoral counseling, I spent one unit of training working as a chaplain in a medium security prison in LaGrange, Kentucky. Personal letters and journals written by the inmates were carefully censored as was all correspondence coming into the prison.
The Apostle Paul wrote several of his letters during his two-year confinement in Rome, in approximately 61-63 A.D. Regarding his shackles as a minor concern, Paul used this time of incarceration to write letters that, for over two thousand years, have been a source of encouragement to his readers.
In 1658 John Bunyan, a Baptist minister in England, was indicted for preaching without a license. Though he was initially imprisoned for only a few months, officials extended his sentence to nearly twelve years because he refused to stop preaching. During that time, he penned Pilgrim’s Progress, still considered a classic of Christian devotion.
Miguel de Cervantes returned home as a wounded soldier after serving in the Spanish army during the 1600s. Unable to find work, he was sentenced to debtor’s prison. There he wrote Don Quixote, as well as other stories, poems, and plays. I suppose that being behind bars leads to fantasies about jousting with windmills.
Watchman Nee, born in China, became a Christian in 1920 at the age of seventeen. The Communist government arrested him in 1952 because of verbal and printed professions of his beliefs. Though he remained behind bars until his death in 1972, he continued to write about his faith. Those books and letters remain a source of inspiration.
Mahatma Gandhi was imprisoned several times for leading revolution in India through passive resistance and nonviolence. The Essential Gandhi includes his teachings on civil disobedience, freedom, and even the joy of prison.
During World War II, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was active in the German Resistance movement against the Nazi regime. He was among those who opposed Hitler’s treatment of the Jews. The Gestapo banned him from preaching, then teaching, and finally any form of public speaking.
He participated in a plot to remove Adolf Hitler. In 1943, Bonhoeffer was arrested. While imprisoned the young pastor produced numerous letters later published as Letters and Papers from Prison. Bonhoeffer was hanged at the age of 39 three weeks before the end of World War II. His words continue to inspire believers to this day.
The late Nelson Mandela, an anti-apartheid activist and leader in the struggle for equality in South Africa, was also a Nobel Peace Prize recipient. Locked up for twenty-seven years at Robben Island, he kept a secret diary. Upon his release he published his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. Much of that book was written during his imprisonment.
On Martin Luther King Day I recall some of the most profound words that have been written from behind bars. King was one of the most influential civil rights leaders in modern times. After initiating a nonviolent protest against racial segregation on Good Friday 1963, he was arrested and placed in solitary confinement in Birmingham, Alabama. Mayor Albert Boutwell was a segregationist, and Police Commissioner Eugene Bull Conner was notorious for his violent treatment of blacks. Governor of Alabama in 1963, George Wallace had won that office with campaign promises of segregation forever.
Eight white Alabama clergymen wrote a letter published in The Birmingham News on April 12, 1963, entitled “A Call for Unity.” The eight pastors agreed that social injustices were occurring but expressed the belief that the battle against racial segregation should be fought solely in the courts and not taken into the streets.
King responded with an open letter written on April 16, 1963. While specifically addressing those eight clergymen, King clearly wrote to a national audience. He declared his conviction that without direct action, civil rights could never be achieved. As he stated, “This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.'” He asserted not only that civil disobedience is justified in the face of unjust laws, but also that “one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”
The letter proclaimed, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” King also quoted the words of Justice Thurgood Marshall, “Justice too long delayed is justice denied.”
I will never forget a conversation I had with General Norman Gaddis. General Gaddis was Colonel Gaddis when he was an Air Force pilot who was shot down over North Viet Nam. He was in solitary confinement in what the United States Prisoners of War refer to as the Hanoi Hilton for 1000 days. That is about three years. Then for another three years, he was in a cell with three other American officers, also prisoners of war.
In conversation with General Gaddis, I asked, “What got you through? What really gave you the ability to endure those six years?”
He answered succinctly, “Scripture got me through.”
I said, “You mean they let you have a Bible?”
He answered, “Oh, no. They did not let me have a Bible. When I was growing up, I was in Sunday School. I was always encouraged to memorize Scripture. I was surprised to know how much of that I remembered. Even when I could not remember the exact words of a verse, I could recall stories that I had heard as a child. Can you imagine what the story of Daniel in the lion’s den meant to me?”
All of these people might rightly be called prisoners of hope. To be a prisoner of hope means that in whatever circumstance you find yourself, you know that ultimately your life is at the mercy only of the Almighty. Your life is not at the mercy of those who would persecute. It is the reason the prophet Zechariah coined this wonderful phrase, prisoners of hope.
With this provocative phrase in mind, let us remember those in our own time who are persecuted for their faith or their desire for freedom. They are truly prisoners of hope.
Our daughter, Betsy, and her family visited with us for a few days at Christmas. Our son-in-law Jason is one of our special friends. We talk with each other about the books we read, our favorite athletic teams, and, of course his two children who are also two of our grandchildren. Swapping stories is another of our pastimes. During his recent Christmas visit we spoke, again, of his encounter with the Pacolet River Horse.
Jason grew up on his family farm in Illinois a few miles south of Chicago. On his first visit to Spartanburg, Clare and I invited Betsy and Jason to lunch at a local restaurant. We enjoyed a meal of fried green tomatoes and shrimp and grits together. It didn’t take long for that prairie farm boy to get up to his elbows in good Southern victuals.
“Have you been to South Carolina before?” I asked.
Jason told me the story of his one previous foray into the Palmetto State. I was fascinated by his tale.
“I first came to the Carolinas in 2002. March Madness brought two other guys and me from Greenville, Illinois, to Boiling Springs, North Carolina. The women’s basketball team from Greenville College traveled to Gardner-Webb University for the National Christian College Athletic Association championship tournament. I was a player on the Greenville Panthers men’s team. I was invited to be color commentator for the radio broadcast on WGRN, The Grin, back in Northern Illinois.
“Our girls’ team played the last game on the first night of the tournament. We arrived at the Gardner-Webb campus late and didn’t have time to eat dinner. After the game was over, we were all hungry. Everything in Boiling Springs was closed. We decided that since we had never been to South Carolina, we would drive across the state line to find food.
“At Interstate 85, we saw the signs to Greenville. Since we were from Greenville, Illinois, we thought it would be cool to eat in Greenville, South Carolina.”
“It’s a good thing you didn’t know about Greenville, North Carolina,” I interrupted.
“After we ate, it was very late. We were all tired. The two other guys fell asleep. I drove. Somewhere beyond a giant Peach, I got off the Interstate heading back to Gardner-Webb. I must have taken the wrong turn. I got hopelessly lost. I drove forever down a dark country road.
“The black highway was covered with gray mist. I approached a river, traveling downhill. I crossed a bridge shrouded in thick fog, suddenly, to my right, I caught a glimpse of a white stallion rearing up out of the water. I swerved to avoid hitting the horse. My friends woke up yelling at me. I spun out, skidding to a stop in front of a big factory of some kind.
“‘Did you see that horse?’ I shouted. They thought I was crazy. They insisted that I was hallucinating.”
Jason swore on a stack of fried green tomatoes that there were no drugs or alcohol involved.
When I heard his story, I laughed out loud.
Jason said, “I have dreamed about that horse galloping through the fog. Every time I have a high fever, I have nightmares about that horse rearing up out of that river.”
After our meal, I drove Jason to Pacolet Mills to show him the Pacolet River horse.
Jason mused out loud. “It’s not as big as it seemed that night. In the fog and mist it looked as big as an Illinois draft horse. Up close in the daylight it looks like it belongs on a merry-go-round.”
Jason and Betsy took a few pictures of the Pacolet River and the horse perched on its pedestal near the bridge. “This solves a puzzle in my life. Any idea why there is a horse here?” he asked.
I was intrigued by his question and decided to investigate. I started with the internet. I learned that Pacolet is a Cherokee word meaning swift horse. The fleet steed became the logo of Pacolet Manufacturing. The image of the stallion graced the engine of the local train. The horse was the truth mark, the seal of authenticity, stamped on every bale of cloth shipped from the mill. One time a shipment of fabric was returned from China back to the mill. It had been refused because it did not bear the stamp of the horse. So the horse as a symbol has several connections to Pacolet Mills.
After Jason’s departure, I wondered. How did the horse get into the river? Several Pacolet residents said I must talk to Worry Kirby.
Maurice Pace arranged a meeting at the T.W. Edwards Community Center with R. S. Burns and Worry Kirby. My first question seemed obvious. “Where did you get the name Worry?”
“My uncle gave it to me when I was three. He said I worried him to death.”
I asked about the horse in the river. Worry and Burns told the story.
In 1953 a new bridge was built over the Pacolet River on Highway 150. The old bridge was demolished except for the large stone piling left standing in the current. The horse, the logo of the mill, was imprinted on every paycheck. The mascot of Pacolet High School was an Indian riding a white horse. Both textile league baseball teams in Pacolet were called the Trojans. Worry and Burns decided they wanted to put a white stallion on the old pillar in the river.
Burns said, “We looked high and low. We found it over in Greenville somewhere close to White Horse Road, believe it or not.”
Worry explained, “It was fiberglass. Made in California. The fellow who had it for sale wanted $3000.”
“Before we left, Worry had him down to $2800,” Burns said. “We raised most of the cash in three months. Worry can raise money. If he takes a bucket to go blackberry picking, somebody will throw five dollars in the pail before he gets started. His brother chipped in forty dollars before we got back to Pacolet.”
Worry said, “We got the horse! I hauled it around in the back of my truck while we got the rest of the money together.”
Burns continued the tale, “We borrowed the longest ladder the Pacolet Fire Department had. We lowered that ladder over the bridge tying it with ropes to the railing. Worry went over the edge, slid down to the top rung, worked his way around to the other side of the ladder, got a good hold, and walked that ladder like a pair of stilts over to the rock column.”
Worry explained how he accomplished the acrobatic feat. “I pulled myself up on the pillar. R. S. (Burns) threw me a broom. Folks had been using it for target practice. The top was littered with rocks and broken bottles. I swept it clean and measured real good. I didn’t want to go back over there if I didn’t have to.”
On July 4, 1996, four men were lifted, one at a time, over to the stanchion in a bucket truck. They ate lunch on top of the pillar just because they could. Using a generator for power, they drilled holes to accommodate the bolts that would fasten the horse in place. Meanwhile, a fellow who repairs fiberglass boats made the horse watertight. A welder prepared the steel base and the cage that protects the horse. By July 12, 1996, the Pacolet River steed was in place, rearing proudly above the river named for a horse.
The fiberglass steed is definitely a stallion. Several women in the Pacolet Mills community wanted Worry and Burns to turn the horse around facing upstream so his maleness would be less evident.
“I ain’t gonna’ do that!” Worry declared. “If y’all want to put a diaper on him, have at it!”
Burns added, “One preacher tried to get up a petition asking the town council to take our horse down. He thought it was indecent. Nobody would sign the petition. Most people like the horse.”
When I told Worry and Burns the story about Jason, they laughed. “He’s not the first, and he won’t be the last to be surprised by that horse!”
I told them about Jason’s nightmares.
Worry grinned, “That stud deserves to have mares of some kind.”
At 3:30 A.M. last Wednesday morning, our daughter and her family were packed and ready to depart for their home in Chicago. Clare was rocking our three-year-old granddaughter, saying goodbye. The little girl was sad to leave after a delightful Christmas visit with us here in the Upstate. She said to Clare, “When we have time together we need to savor every moment.”
We were all surprised at this profound truth spoken by our grandchild. “Out of the mouths of babes…” came to mind. Those parting words prompted this column. Read more…
Is there anything as over as Christmas? Colorful wrapping paper and bright ribbons are reduced to trash as quickly as gifts are torn open. Fresh green trees that have graced our homes for weeks begin to drop needles until they are discarded along city streets, waiting like fallen soldiers to be collected by the body wagon. Even artificial trees are stored in plastic containers the size of coffins. Decorations are packed away in the basement, the attic, or the garage until next year.
Christmas is over!
In the week following Christmas, we may become preoccupied with returning and exchanging gifts, cleaning house, and paying bills. No wonder the days after Christmas mark a mood swing. The season to be jolly often dissolves into a time of exhaustion and despair.
The post-Christmas season can also be a time of blessed relief. For those who enjoy gardening, the mail carrier brings not only bills and tax forms, but also seed and plant catalogues.
The days between Christmas and New Year’s Day give us time for reflection on the year past and the year ahead. Opening a new calendar can be an opportunity to plan and organize by marking birthdays, anniversaries, vacations, and other special occasions. Stretching nonstop into the foreseeable future are bowl games for avid football fans.
December 26 is Boxing Day. It is primarily observed throughout the United Kingdom and former Commonwealth countries. In Ireland it is called St Stephen’s Day. In the English tradition the day is a time to offer presents to the people upon whose service we depend all year, those who deliver our newspaper and our mail, bag and carry groceries for us, clean our offices, and service our automobiles, just to name a few.
The twelve days of Christmas include Boxing Day and end on Epiphany, January 6. These twelve days after Christmas provide an opportunity to extend the holidays.
The song “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is based on this season of gift giving. If we assume a partridge in a pear tree is given only on the first day and each of the other gifts are given only once, the monetary value in dollars at this writing would be about $34,000.
However, the song implies that the gifts given each day are repeated on each of the remaining eleven days. By January 6, the recipient would have a total of twelve partridges and twelve pear trees. By the twelfth day, the beloved would have received 376 gifts, including 184 birds.
On Christmas Eve, Jeff and his extended family gathered in the living room of his grandmother’s home. The family had grown so large that they had decided to draw names instead of giving gifts to everyone. Aunt Ethel didn’t want to draw names. She was a wealthy spinster who could afford to give everybody a gift. She seemed to delight in selecting gifts and wrapping them. A gift from Aunt Ethel was like a work of art.
When Jeff received the elongated flat box decorated with a Styrofoam snowman, he thought he knew what Aunt Ethel had given him. In early December, she had phoned to ask Jeff what he preferred. He carefully opened the box, keeping the cleverly crafted snowman intact. He was horrified! His gift from Aunt Ethel was perhaps the ugliest necktie he had ever seen. It looked something like a Purina Dog Chow bag. The pattern of large red and white checks was hideous.
Jeff’s face must have revealed his shock and disappointment. Everyone in the room was astonished when he lifted the tie from the tissue paper in the flat box. Jeff looked into the empty box to be sure he hadn’t missed something.
Aunt Ethel asked brusquely, “Don’t tell me you don’t like it.” Then she added, “It’s exactly what you said you wanted.”
Jeff exclaimed, “Aunt Ethel, when you asked me if I preferred a large check or a small check, I didn’t know you were talking about a necktie!”
The story of the Magi tells of unusual people giving exotic gifts under strange circumstances. The gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, as odd as they may seem, were actually quite appropriate. Gold is the gift for a person of royalty; frankincense is incense for a priest; myrrh is an embalming spice for one destined to die. In gift-giving it is not only the thought but also the meaning behind the gift that counts.
Well-chosen gifts need not be as extravagant as those of the wise men. One Christmas our children and I enjoyed building and giving bluebird boxes as presents. The experience of making the nesting boxes, delivering the gifts, and knowing we were improving the environment brought triple satisfaction.
Our family enjoys treasures that have been given to us in Christmases past. Cross-stitch pieces, wooden serving trays, crocheted dish cloths, and hand-thrown pottery are pleasant reminders of friends and family who have taken the time to make a gift.
O’Henry, a master storyteller, was renowned for his surprise endings. One of his best-known stories is the Christmas tale “The Gift of the Magi.”
A newly married couple, James and Della Young, were very much in love with each other. Because they were starting out with few resources, they had no extra money to purchase gifts for each other at Christmastime.
Jim wanted to give Della a set of silver combs for her long, beautiful flowing hair. Della wished she could give Jim a gold chain for the fine gold watch he had inherited. As Christmas approached, try though they might, neither Jim nor Della was able to accumulate enough money to purchase a gift for the other. They each came up with a secret plan.
On Christmas Eve, Della had her lovely hair cropped short. She sold her tresses to be used to make wigs for other women. With the money she received, Della purchased a gold chain for Jim’s treasured watch.
When Della arrived at her home that night, her husband was, to say the least, quite surprised to see the new hairstyle. Della reached in her purse and took out a small package, which she handed to Jim. When Jim opened his gift, he was astonished to see the gold watch chain. When Della encouraged him to attach the chain to his watch, Jim hesitated and then gave his present to Della.
Upon opening her gift, Della was flabbergasted. Jim’s gift to her was a set of expensive filigreed silver combs. She wondered how her husband could afford such a fine gift. She could have used those silver combs when her hair was long. Then Della realized that Jim had sold his watch to purchase a gift for her. They laughed together at the irony of their Christmas gifts to each other.
The two gifts perfectly represent sacrificial love. Jim and Della received material gifts that were of little value for the moment. But the gift that endured was their love for each other.
The best gifts are selfless, and sometimes enduring gifts come from unexpected sources.
Gene Lassiter, the former pastor of Second Presbyterian Church in Spartanburg, had a custom of dropping by the church’s Soup Kitchen from time to time. He often helped by serving the meals. Some of the people who ate meals at the Soup Kitchen came on a regular basis.
Gene told me a story about an encounter he had with one of those repeat visitors, a homeless man who often had multiple needs. Over the years Second Presbyterian had ministered to this man in a variety of ways, but it was as if the church could never help him quite enough. I doubt if any church could have ever helped him sufficiently.
One Christmas Eve the church held a worship service that concluded about 9:00 P.M. Gene had preached the sermon at that service, and he was the last to leave the church. Just as he was locking the door and removing the key, he looked up and saw this particular homeless man, walking across the lawn of the church directly toward him.
Gene just knew the man was going to ask for help once again, so he waited. The man walked up the steps to the church, reached out, and shook Gene’s hand. Then he said, “Pastor Gene, I just came by to say thank you for the many things you have done for me and to tell you Merry Christmas.”
With that, the man turned, walked back down the steps, and disappeared into the darkness of the night. Gene said he was astounded. The man had not made a single request on Christmas Eve. He had simply come by to express appreciation and to wish Gene a Merry Christmas.
The gift of gratitude is a special Christmas blessing.
At the heart of the Christian celebration of Christmas is a gift. It is a present, not wrapped in colorful paper with a big bow, but a gift wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in a manger. That gift is a relationship. It is a present of presence.of presence. Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus. He is Emmanuel, God with us. For those in the Christian faith Jesus is the ultimate gift, the gift of God’s presence with us.
One smart fellow I know assembled paper ornaments and hung them inconspicuously on the tree in his home. On Christmas morning, as presents were opened, the family wondered why they found no gifts from Dad. After all of the other gifts had been unwrapped, the father presented the paper ornaments to his family. Inside each ornament was a personal note. To his son, he gave a three-day backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail, just for the two of them. To his daughter, he gave a three-day skiing trip, just for the two of them. To his wife, he gave a two-week Caribbean cruise, just for the two of them.
The dad was a contemporary wise man. He not only gave presents to the people he loved, but he also gave the gift of presence, time to be spent with them.
This Christmas consider fretting less about presents, and concentrate on giving the gift of presence.
Clare joins me in wishing for you a blessed Christmas.