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A KENTUCKY THANKSGIVING

November 27, 2021

During these difficult days for many people, Clare and I have been considering what we might do to help those in need. We have decided to continue our support for the charitable nonprofit organizations that are serving our community. Each week in this space, I will ask you to consider helping one charity. This week, please volunteer or donate, as you are able, to Spartanburg Soup Kitchen, 136 Forest Street, Spartanburg, South Carolina 29306, (864) 585,0022.

As part of my clinical training in pastoral counseling, I worked for three years as a chaplain at Kentucky State Hospital for the Mentally Ill. This is a Thanksgiving story from that time in my life that I have shared many times. It is an account of an experience that I had while I was in clinical training for pastoral work. Some of you have heard it or read it before. Now, after more than fifty-five years of ministry, it is still a pivotal event in my understanding of gratitude.  

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. It is the least commercialized of all our celebrations. For most of us, the fourth Thursday of November is a day to pause and express our gratitude before Black Friday and Cyber Monday, identified as the busiest shopping days of the year. The brief respite is a time for reflection, for heartfelt appreciation, and for nostalgia. One of my fondest Thanksgiving memories is a Kentucky Thanksgiving with a young man I’ll call Bobby. I have changed his name to protect his identity.

Bobby was fourteen years old. He was large for his age but shy and withdrawn. His severe acne, unkempt hair, broken front tooth, smudged glasses, and distant stare were external evidence of a troubled mind and a broken heart. 

Bobby was a patient in the adolescent unit at Central State Hospital, a mental hospital in La Grange, Kentucky, where I worked as a student chaplain while I was in seminary. Though Bobby was diagnosed as chronically depressed and borderline schizophrenic, he had moments when his intellectual functioning exceeded that of the hospital staff. 

Bobby was one of the patients who prompted the comment, “The main difference between the staff and the patients in this hospital is that the patients get better.”

As Thanksgiving approached during those golden autumn days in Kentucky, the staff in the adolescent unit at Central State Hospital was delighted to learn that almost all the teenage patients would be given a three-day home visit for the holiday, all, that is, except Bobby. The treatment team had determined that Bobby was not ready to function for three days away from the hospital. His home situation had been assessed as being so dysfunctional that he could be allowed no more than a one-day visit accompanied by a hospital staff member. If Bobby went home for Thanksgiving Day, he would have to return to the hospital that same night.

Other staff members had looked forward to having Thanksgiving Day away from the hospital. I volunteered to accompany Bobby to his home in the Kentucky mountains for the day. The social worker contacted his mother and his grandparents to arrange the visit. I would drive him to his mother’s house for Thanksgiving dinner and bring him back to the hospital before nightfall. Clare and I planned to have our family Thanksgiving meal after I returned to our home that evening.

Thanksgiving Day dawned clear and cold. I met Bobby at the adolescent unit early. I wondered what this visit to his home would mean to him.  Those dark vacant eyes, practically concealed behind the dirty glasses, revealed no excitement. The sunny Thanksgiving morning and the beautiful Kentucky countryside made our three-hour drive through the Bluegrass Region into the mountains a scenic trip. 

Though I attempted several times to strike up a conversation about Bobby’s family and their usual Thanksgiving celebration, Bobby responded with silence. His only conversation was to give a running commentary on the make and model of every automobile on the highway. He knew details about many cars, such as engine size and horsepower. The only significant exchange between us was his assertion that I had not made a wise selection when I had purchased my used car. I should have chosen a Ford Mustang, he advised.

When we arrived in the coal mining mountain town, Bobby directed me to his mother’s house. A note of anticipation arose in his voice as we approached the modest home. The frame house suffered from neglect. Shingles were missing from the roof, and paint was peeling from the wooden siding. The screen door was completely off the hinges, propped against the house. Bobby said, “Her truck is gone.  She’s not here.” His face showed no emotion; his voice disclosed disappointment. Bobby did not knock on the door. He just opened the unlocked door to search the house. No one was home.

“Could she be at your grandparents’ house?” I asked. 

“We can see,” replied Bobby. 

We drove for several miles on a winding back road to his grandparent’s home. The log house perched on a mountainside showed no sign of life. “Maybe we missed them,” suggested Bobby. We took the twisted trip back into town to his mother’s home. No one was there. I offered to buy Thanksgiving dinner for the two of us, not knowing where I could find a restaurant, much less a restaurant open on the holiday. 

Bobby refused my offer. “I’ll fix something,” he said.

Inside the small kitchen, I watched as my fourteen-year-old host opened the refrigerator. It was well stocked with beer, but the food supply was sparse.  Bobby took bologna and a bowl of cold grits from the shelf. In a large iron skillet, he fried thick slices of bologna. In the remaining grease, he browned slices of cold grits. I fixed two glasses of water. We sat in ladder-back chairs at an old card table. I quoted Psalm 100 and offered a blessing. Bobby and I ate together in almost total silence. Then we cleaned up the dishes together. When it was time to leave, we closed the door, leaving it unlocked as we had found it.

The three-hour drive back to the institution seemed interminable. Our only conversation was about automobiles. At one point, I tried to allow Bobby to speak about his hurt. 

“I’m sorry we didn’t get to be with your family.” 

Bobby replied stoically, “It’s okay.” Then he commented on a passing Pontiac.

Just before sunset, Bobby and I climbed the back stairs to the adolescent unit at Central State Hospital. A childcare worker unlocked the door to allow for our entry. As I prepared to leave, Bobby turned toward me, threw his arms around my neck, and said, “This is the best Thanksgiving I have ever had!”

On Thanksgiving Day, our family repeats together the words from the Bible, “Enter into his gates with Thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise: be thankful unto him and bless his name.” (Psalm 100:4) 

When I hear that scripture, I remember the Thanksgiving meal of fried bologna and cold grits, shared at a card table in a rundown house in the mountains of Kentucky. 

I am reminded that Thanksgiving is not what is on our table.  Thanksgiving is what is in our hearts.

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor.

His novel, December Light 1916, is a cherished holiday book.

It is available at all bookstores and online booksellers.

He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com.

THE LIGHT BREAKS THROUGH

November 27, 2021

During these difficult days for many people, Clare and I have considered what we might do to help those in need. We have decided to continue our support for the charitable nonprofit organizations that are serving our community. Each week in this space, I will ask you to consider helping one charity. During this season of light, please volunteer or donate, as you are able, to your place of worship or to your favorite charity. Thank you.

Tyger River Presbyterian Church is hosting an Advent art display from the first Sunday of Advent, November 28, through Epiphany, January 6. The theme of the art presentation, “The Light Breaks Through,” is appropriate to the season of Advent.

The concept of light breaking through has solid Biblical roots. The Book of Genesis declares, “In the beginning …. The earth was without form, and void, and darkness was on the face of the deep…. Then God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” The magnificence of creation began with light breaking through the chaos.

In Hebrew scripture, the Word of God gives illumination, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” (Psalm 119:105) The prophet Isaiah says the people of Israel are to give guidance to others. “I will also give You as a light to the nations, That You should be My salvation to the ends of the earth.” (Isaiah 49:6)

The Christian tradition continues and amplifies many Jewish theological concepts. The idea of light breaking through the darkness is one shining example. It is from Isaiah that the Christian Church has identified passages that foretell a coming Messiah.

The people who walked in darkness

Have seen a great light;

Those who dwelt in the land of the shadow of death,

Upon them, a light has shined. (Isaiah 9:2)

The theme of the light breaking through continues in the writings of the Apostle John. In the prologue to the Fourth Gospel, John sounds the decisive note of Christian theology when he proclaims about Jesus. “In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never overcome it.” (John 1:4-5)

Several years ago, I taught an upper-level religion class at the University of South Carolina Upstate entitled Celtic Religion through the Ages. Our study took 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 of the Celts was found in the salt mines of Hallstatt, Austria, dating back to the Early Iron Age, circa 800–450 Before the Common Era (B.C.E.).

The second discipline is the study of the classical literature of Greek and Roman writers who knew 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 priests and prophets, as judges, and as philosophers. Spiritual practices centered on the solar and lunar rhythms 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 feared that the sun’s light would recede 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.

Beyond the Biblical account, both Jews and Christians find light to be an appropriate symbol of hope, which is intertwined with faith. The seasons of Advent and Hanukkah almost always coincide. Often, Christmas falls within the eight-day observance of Hanukkah. Christians mark the days of Advent by lighting candles in an Advent wreath. They gather for worship in churches on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

Each evening during Hanukkah, Jewish families celebrate the holiday by lighting candles in a menorah, a nine-branched candelabra. This year Hanukkah coincides with the first week of Advent. The Jewish celebration begins at sundown on November 28 and continues through December 6.

The Gospel of John (10:22) records an interesting event from the life of Jesus. “Then came the Feast of Dedication at Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was in the temple area walking in Solomon’s Colonnade.” This passage indicates that Jesus observed Hanukkah, also called the Feast of Dedication or the Festival of Lights.

The origin of Hanukkah dates to 164 B.C.E., when Syria dominated Israel.  Antiochus Epiphanes, the king from Syria, was a harsh, cruel tyrant.  Jewish worship, including the observance of Passover and the Sabbath, was forbidden under Antiochus. Idols representing Greek gods were set up in the Temple, and the Torah scrolls were burned. Antiochus slaughtered a pig on the altar of the Temple, committing what the Book of Daniel refers to as the “abomination of desecration.”  The Syrians murdered thousands of Jewish dissidents who were steadfastly loyal to the Jewish faith.

Under the leadership of Yehuda, the Hammer, better known as Judas Maccabees, the Jews defeated an army of 40,000 Syrians.  Judas and the Maccabees liberated Jerusalem. They entered the Temple and cleansed it of idols. They also built and dedicated a new altar to replace the one desecrated by Antiochus.

A part of the dedication was the relighting of the eternal flame representing God’s presence in the Temple. However, there was only enough consecrated olive oil to keep the light burning for one day. By Jewish law, eight days were required to consecrate new oil. Miraculously, the small cruse of oil continued to burn for eight days.

Hanukkah, which means dedication, commemorates this divine blessing.  It is an eight-day festival of thanksgiving and rededication for the Jewish community. Jewish families light candles in the menorah each evening. The center taper is the servant candle and is used to light the other eight, each in turn as the days pass. By the eighth night, all candles are burning.

The scriptures speak of God as “the light in whom there is no darkness.”  For Christians, Christmas celebrations include symbols of that heavenly light: the star of Bethlehem and the candles in an Advent wreath. For Jews, the symbols of divine light are the Star of David and the menorah candles. In this season of light, we recognize and respect both traditions.

My youngest brother, Bob, died on November 9 of this year. Bob was a man of many talents. He was a gifted Bible teacher, a faithful pastor, and a delightful storyteller. He ran the family lumberyard until it closed in 2008. He then became an Associate Pastor at First Baptist Church of Spartanburg. Bob was always a source of light for people of all ages, especially for those going through difficult times.

Just after he was diagnosed with cancer, I shared with Bob the book Learning to Walk in the Dark by Barbara Brown Taylor. It is a spiritually enriching read for many people. One of her suggestions is that we regain our sense of lunar rhythm. We have flooded our world with artificial light to the point that we have lost touch with the experiences of night and especially an appreciation of the moon.

We both recalled a childhood memory of a fishing calendar on the wall of the lumberyard that had the phases of the moon indicated. Another memory was reading the Old Farmer’s Almanac. Then, we called to mind David Tanner.

David Tanner worked for our Uncle Asbury, who was a building contractor. David did all kinds of jobs for my uncle, from screeding poured concrete to laying brick. David was not a skilled carpenter, but he helped other carpenters frame many a house. He was always cheerful, usually singing, and he was a diligent worker.

David lived on the King Line behind the old stockyard, located not far from our home. Though crippled with arthritis, he would walk from his home, past our house, on his way to the lumberyard.  There he purchased his daily Coca-Cola. 

Often David would stop at our house, sit in a rocking chair on the front porch to enjoy his Coca-Cola, and then shuffle on to his home.  Many mornings I would take a mug of coffee and join David on the porch. Those were the times when I received my philosophy lesson.

David was quite a churchman. He loved going to church, and he especially enjoyed singing in the choir.  David’s church built a new sanctuary. He invited me to come to the dedication. My dad and I went together to the Sunday afternoon service, all three hours of it.  

After the service, David showed us around the church in which he took so much pride.  He explained that the church didn’t have stained glass windows. I will never forget the way that he expressed it.

“We don’t have none of them windows with people on ’em that the light shines through.” 

What a phrase!  “People that the light shines through.” 

When you know people like Bob Neely and David Tanner, you don’t need stained glass windows.  The light breaks through in many ways, often in people like David and my brother Bob. They were the kind of people that the light shines through.

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor.

His novel, December Light 1916, is a cherished holiday book.

It is available at all bookstores and online booksellers.

He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com.

SWEET POTATOES:

November 13, 2021

DEPRESSION STAPLE, HOLIDAY FARE

During these difficult days for many people, Clare and I have been considering what we might do to help those in need. We have decided to continue our support for the charitable nonprofit organizations that are serving our community. Each week in this space, I will ask you to consider helping one charity. This week, please volunteer or donate, as you are able, to TOTAL Ministries, 976 S Pine Street, Spartanburg, SC 29302, (864) 585-9167.

Today, November 14, would have been my dad’s one hundred and first birthday. I share a memory from Dad’s youth.

In the fall of 2019, before the COVID pandemic, Clare and I paid a visit to Strawberry Hill at Cooley Springs in the Upstate of South Carolina. As usual, James Cooley’s place of business was hopping. Pumpkins of every shape, size, and color were on display, along with several varieties of apples, pears, assorted jams and jellies, hot cider, and boiled peanuts.

I had the opportunity to speak to James, and I complimented him on the festive appearance of the peach shed.

“Yeah,” he said, “Our daughter Brandi does a good job decorating. I turned that part over to her.”

I stepped back to admire the view. Dried corn stalks and bales of hay served as the backdrop.  Clusters of Indian corn and groupings of fall mums were mixed among the produce. The roadside stand was a feast for the eyes.

In the midst of the autumn colors were piles of brown sweet potatoes as dirty as the soil from which they were dug. The piles were marked with large cardboard signs each bearing one word written in rustic red letters – TATERS. Nearly all the customers, including Clare, grabbed a bag and selected some of the rough tubers.

Clare picked out several of the sweet potatoes. Two days later, we had five of our grandchildren in our home, and we all enjoyed warm sweet potatoes with butter.

In the world of superfoods, sweet potatoes are rising stars. The orange flesh is rich in beta carotene and vitamin C, both powerful antioxidants. This starchy vegetable can be enjoyed any time of year. In the South, sweet potatoes are abundant from September through December. At our house, the versatile vegetable makes the perfect companion to a Thanksgiving turkey or a Christmas ham

Sweet potatoes come in many varieties. The skin color can range from red to purple, yellow, brown, or white. The flesh also ranges in color from white or yellow to dark orange. The peel is thin and edible. It is the orange-fleshed varieties that are most common and most often called yams.

Ask for yams in most any grocery store, and you’re likely to be directed to sweet potatoes. Though yams and sweet potatoes are considered first cousins, they are not related botanically.

True yams are native to Africa and parts of Asia. They may be the size of a small potato or grow to be several feet long. The skin on most varieties of yams is thick, rough, and somewhat like bark. When cooked, they are generally drier, starchier, and less sweet than sweet potatoes. The confusion started in the South. Slaves who had been brought from Africa called sweet potatoes nyami because of their resemblance to the familiar root crop, which was a staple in Africa.

At James Cooley’s peach shed, I picked up a sweet potato and examined it. This simple vegetable was responsible for my family’s survival.

My grandfather and grandmother, Pappy and Mammy, had eight children when the Great Depression hit.  Pappy was running what he called a one-horse lumberyard on East Henry Street. The family had moved to Spartanburg from Greenville in 1923. My dad was two years old at the time. Pappy started the lumberyard with his life’s savings. Eventually, he was able to build a beautiful brick home out on the Greenville Highway, where the pavement ended.  

During the Depression, “times were hard and things were bad,” to quote Johnny Cash. One of the first areas to suffer at the beginning of an economic downturn is the construction industry.  It is also one of the last to recover.  Building homes and even making home repairs are postponed when the country experiences a depressed economy.  

Pappy struggled to make ends meet.  Determined to save the lumberyard, he mortgaged the business and then his home to put more money into the lumberyard.  Politicians kept saying that prosperity was just around the corner.  Finally, Pappy lost both the lumberyard and the family home.

Pappy and Mammy moved to a house that is still standing across the road from the South Carolina School for the Deaf and Blind at Cedar Springs.  The gray Victorian house features contrasting white gingerbread work around the outside.  Uncle Wesley, their ninth child, was born in that home.

My dad, then eleven years old, raised turkeys. Mammy’s goat and cow provided dairy products for the family. Pappy planted a large garden and farmed the land where Mountainview Nursing Home now stands.

The chain gang mule Pappy bought at an auction near Dutchman’s Fork for fifteen dollars had been used and abused until he was little more than skin and bones. Dick, as the mule was called, had worn a harness so often that trace chains had rubbed open sores on his sides. Pappy applied Bluestone Salve to the mule’s wounds. He fed him oats, corn, and hay to put a little meat on his bones. When Dick was restored to health, he was an excellent plow mule.

Pappy decided to raise sweet potatoes to sell and to serve as a staple food for his large family. He knew the market and knew the tubers could be stored easily. Though he had grown them in a garden, he knew nothing about planting sweet potatoes commercially. Pappy plowed the ground, cut the furrows, and planted the potato slips in the rows as he had always done.

Neighbors just laughed at Pappy, advising, “You’ll never make any taters planting them in the valleys like that. You’ll have nothing but vines. Taters have to be planted on the hills.”

A long, hot, dry summer followed. Most farmers who had planted sweet potatoes had a poor harvest. That fall, however, Pappy turned the furrows where he had planted the potato slips. The valleys had gotten enough water: the hills did not. Pappy and his children harvested a bumper crop. Mammy, who had prayed earnestly for the effort, gave credit to the Lord for the bounty.

Pappy walked across Highway 56 to the School for the Deaf and Blind and struck an agreement with the superintendent, Dr. W. L. Walker. Pappy would provide all of the sweet potatoes and turkeys the school needed for the coming year for a set price. With the annual renewal of the contract, the income helped to sustain the family throughout the Depression.

 A Neely family legend holds that Mammy, of necessity, often prepared sweet potatoes three different ways for the same meal. Sweet potato soufflé, candied yams, and baked sweet potatoes were standard fare. Sweet potato biscuits, sweet potato bread, and sweet potato rolls were Mammy’s specialties. Sweet potato pie was a typical dessert. When the children came home from school and needed a snack, they usually ate a cold, leftover sweet potato. Mammy just didn’t have much else to serve her family.

Even after the Depression, sweet potatoes were usually on Mammy’s table. Uncle Buzz called them Depression taters. He said he had eaten enough to do him a lifetime. He steadfastly declared that he would never eat another sweet potato.

For the rest of his life, Uncle Buzz remained true to his word!

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor.

His novel, December Light 1916, is a cherished holiday book.

It is available at all bookstores and online booksellers.

He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com