This semester I have been teaching an interesting class at the University of South Carolina Upstate. Celtic Religion through the Ages is an upper level religion class. As far as I am aware the course has never before been offered at USC Upstate. I spent much of the summer preparing to teach a group of students who were as fascinated with the subject as I was. Our study has taken us through an examination of ancient Celtic religion followed by a transition to early Celtic Christianity.
Most of what we know about the ancient Celts has come through two academic disciplines. One is European archaeology. Some of the earliest archaeological evidence for the Celts was found in the salt mines of Hallstatt, Austria, dating back to the Early Iron Age, c.800–450 BCE.
The second discipline is the study of classical literature of Greek and Roman writers who had knowledge of the Celtic tribes. These early testaments describe the Celts as feared warriors. Men and women fought together. The men often went into battle wearing only blue body paint and a neck ring. They carried a shield and a short sword. Julius Caesar gives a detailed description of these people and their culture. Clearly, he had much respect for them.
Though generally regarded as uncivilized barbarians who practiced pagan religion, the Celts lived in an organized society. The Druids were their religious leaders. They served as priest and prophets, as judges and as philosophers. Religious practices centered on the solar-lunar rhythm of the universe. Summer and winter solstice, spring and autumn equinox, were observed with important religious rituals sometimes involving human sacrifice.
As the winter solstice approached, the Druids were fearful that the light of the sun was receding from the earth. The diminishing light meant that the world was doomed to darkness. The Yule log kept the fire burning, oil lamps illuminated the house, and evergreens were brought inside to encourage the sun to return.
The practice of bringing light into the homes of the Celts became the root of two of our most important religious observances of this season. Read more…
My grandfather used to say, “Neelys will never have anything. They’ll eat it all up.” My grandfather was a wise man. He was also a Neely.
One of our treasured family stories is about the first time my mother shared a meal at my grandparents’ home. Though the event occurred about two years before my birth, I’ve heard the tale and repeated it so often that I feel I was actually there. The woman who would become my mother was the sweetheart of the man who would become my dad. He took her to a Sunday meal at the family home, the very home in which Clare and I now reside, the home in which we reared our own five children.
The dining room table was large enough to accommodate the entire family. My dad was one of nine children. My grandfather, whom I called Pappy, asked the blessing and picked up a bottle of Tabasco Sauce. Pappy shook the contents all over his salad, a lettuce leaf topped with a pear half, filled with a dollop of mayonnaise and garnished with grated cheese. My mother, seated next to my grandfather, was stunned when she saw her future father-in-law putting Tabasco Sauce on his pear salad. Noticing her surprise, Pappy quipped, “Louise, if you get a hold of something you don’t like, change it to something you do like.” The point is, Neelys can find a way to eat just about anything.
During the Christmas holiday season of 1987, I did not feel well. Clare and I had the usual heavy schedule of Christmas parties and holiday dinners. On January 1, 1988, at my parent’s home, we enjoyed our traditional New Year’s Day meal of pork chops, barbecue, turnip greens, black-eyed peas, cornbread, and a variety of desserts. In the South, we have a superstition that if a person eats a meal of turnip greens and black-eyed peas on the first day of the year, the year ahead will be prosperous. I had eaten my share and more on that day, just as I had done throughout my life.
While watching the college football bowl games later that afternoon, I drank water almost constantly. My brother-in-law, a Family Practice physician, noticed and said, “I want you to be at my office first thing in the morning. Come fasting. Don’t eat anything.”
The next morning I went to his office, fasting as he had instructed. A Glucose Tolerance Test revealed the truth of my condition. I was and am a diabetic, a fact I discovered during the holiday season. Read more…
I was preaching a community Thanksgiving sermon at Highland Presbyterian Church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, two days before the holiday in 1978. As I closed my message, the minister of music stepped forward to announce the closing hymn. He placed on the pulpit a note written in large letters:
GO HOME NOW! CLARE IS IN LABOR! Read more…
Suddenly a chariot of fire appeared, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind. (II Kings 2:11)
This single Biblical verse elicits multiple images as well as auditory memories. I can hear the theme music from the motion picture “Chariots of Fire.” The film recounts the remarkable story of an athlete in the 1924 Olympics: Eric Liddell, a devout Scottish Christian.
I can also hear the tune and the words to an old spiritual.
Swing low, sweet chariot,
Comin’ for to carry me home;
Swing low, sweet chariot,
Comin’ for to carry me home.
I looked over Jordan,
And what did I see,
Comin’ for to carry me home,
A band of angels comin’ after me,
Comin’ for to carry me home.
Today the scripture calls to mind an art show and reception tonight at the Bijou Gallery from 6:00 – 10:30. Entitled Swing Low, the show features a new collection of Guardians created by our son Kris Neely.
When I first saw these new assemblages, as Kris calls them, I thought of a different kind of angel. According to the Book of Revelation there are seven special angels before the throne of God. These should not be confused with the seven Spanish angels in Willie Nelson’s song. Rather according to traditional Jewish and Christian theology these are better known as the seven named Archangels.
1. Michael (like God) – warrior angel of protection
2. Gabriel (strength of God) – messenger angel of kindness
3. Uriel (God is light) – angel of light and destiny
4. Raphael (God heals) – angel of healing
5. Raguel (friend of God) – angel of justice
6. Sariel (commander of God) – angel of guidance
7. Remiel (God of mercy) – angel of mercy and hope
When I stand before these multilayered constructs the Archangels come to mind. Read more…
Proverbs 17:22 teaches us, “A cheerful heart is good medicine.” So, too, is a thankful heart a remedy for many of our aliments. The best antidote for the poison of envy is gratitude. A grateful heart makes jealousy very difficult. Dr. Hans Selye, who conducted the definitive research on stress and wrote Stress without Distress, claimed that the single best medicine for stress is an attitude of thanksgiving. Like the elixir of cheerfulness, gratitude is a medicine with no harmful side effects. It is simply good for the human spirit.
When I was in the eighth grade, my English teacher was a real battleaxe. She was as tough as nails. Mrs. Estelle Lampley was a no-nonsense stickler for detail. She really stressed subject-verb agreement. Even those of us who grew up on a lumberyard or in a cotton mill, Mrs. Lampley believed, needed to know how to use the English language correctly. She would not abide poor punctuation, sentence fragments, or dangling participles. She had us diagram so many sentences at the blackboard I thought my hand was going to drop off. I left the eighth grade thinking, Finally! I’m out of her class. I’ll never have another teacher like her!
Three years later when I entered my eleventh grade English class, guess who was there. Mrs. Lampley! My lumberyard English was still unacceptable to her. This second time around she continued her emphasis on diagramming sentences, but now she also required us to read and analyze great works of literature. Mrs. Lampley introduced me to short story writers like Joseph Conrad, Flannery O’Conner, and Jack London. I read the novels of Mark Twain, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, and Eudora Welty. It was because of Mrs. Lampley that I first read the plays of William Shakespeare. She even encouraged me to try my hand at writing stories and poems. She was still the same demanding teacher that she had always been, and I was still a teenager struggling to learn. Mrs. Lampley persisted. Read more…
Our son Erik was a shoe leather reporter. Rather than sitting at a desk, gathering details for stories over the telephone, he preferred to go to the story. In his first newspaper job after college, he spent several weeks on the street, working especially at night, among homeless people. With his good friend and photographer, Thomas, Erik published a series of stories that raised the consciousness of the community of Spartanburg, South Carolina, regarding the problem of homelessness.
When the Charleston Post and Courier hired Erik to cover the North Charleston area, Erik and his wife, June, moved to Charleston, South Carolina, The assignment— reporting on the Goose Creek City Council or the Berkeley County School Board—was not appealing to a young reporter whose bent was to write human interest, feature stories. Erik viewed this mundane reporting of city council and school board meetings as paying the rent.
“It gives me an office and a laptop so I can do what I really enjoy,” he said.
When hired, Erik asked if he could take Monday as his day off and work every Saturday. His editor was delighted to grant the request, since most reporters want the weekends off. Erik’s willingness to work on Saturday gained him instant favor with most of the Post and Courier staff. There was one provision. He would have to drive into Charleston on Saturdays and work out of the main downtown office. It was like throwing Br’er Rabbit into the Briar Patch. Downtown Charleston was just where Erik wanted to be. Read more…
Any time I hear the anthem “You Are My Hiding Place,” I think of Corrie ten Boom who wrote The Hiding Place. Her book, which came out of the horrors of World War II, tells of her family providing a place of safety for a Jewish family. When the Nazis discovered their actions, they sent the ten Boom family to concentration camps. I believe Corrie was the only person in her family who survived the experience of the Nazi camp.
Corrie ten Boom was a remarkable person. I met her one time when she came to Spartanburg. This quiet, stately woman reminded me for all the world of my grandmother. She was not very talkative; but her writings, especially her writings about forgiveness, are very powerful. I learned many sound principles about Christian living from her prayers.
One principle she advocated was God’s desire to forgive and forget our sins, remembering them no more. She offered the illustration of God dividing the seas as far as the east is from the west, burying our sins in the deepest part of the ocean, and putting up a sign that says, “No Fishing.” We are not to drag up those sins again. Corrie ten Boom also stressed that forgiveness is one of the most powerful forces in the world, comparing it with setting a prisoner free. When you free the prisoner – when you grant forgiveness – you find out that you had actually been held as prisoner. You were held captive by the grudge you were harboring. Read more…