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EXPECTING A BABY: The First Sunday of Advent

November 28, 2020

Note to readers: 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 Miracle Hill Rescue Mission, 189 North Forest Street, Spartanburg, South Carolina 29301, (864) 583-1628

The season of Advent presents several challenges to a pastor. The first is to tell the old, old story to people who have heard it over and over again as well as to those for whom it is only vaguely familiar. The preaching task is to retain and restore the mystery and wonder of the original story. We have the responsibility of liberating Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus, the Angels, the shepherds, and the Magi from confinement as stained-glass icons in a cathedral window, freeing them to be real people again.

The Holy Family was displaced. They were homeless travelers to Bethlehem and refugees in Egypt.  Mary was probably a teenager. Her first labor was intense, with sweat and blood. Joseph was a faithfully Jew, a carpenter by trade, now pressed into the role of a midwife.   The shepherds were awestruck that night when all heaven broke loose. The Magi were stargazers weary from their long journey. We sing about the baby as if he were not a child. “The little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.” Really? I have been around enough newborns to know that healthy babies cry when they are hungry and when their swaddling clothes need changing. 

A second challenge for a pastor is to remember that Advent is a time of sharp emotional contrasts. Many people are happy and have little difficulty finding joy in the season, but December brings sadness to others. For those who are hurting, the coming of Christmas may be filled with dread, despair, bitterness, and anger. Some are freshly wounded; others carry deep scars from years gone by. For them, Christmas is anything but the season to be jolly.  They suffer while others celebrate.

In fifty-four years of pastoral ministry, I have learned that there is no better way to present the message of hope and love that is at the heart of Advent than through stories that parallel and perhaps merge with the original story. 

Long ago and much further away, a young woman was startled by the news that she was pregnant. She had not had the first inkling, nor had she any reason to believe she was with child. She had saved herself for marriage. The attendant dressed all in white was neither a nurse nor a physician. The messenger who broke the news was the archangel, Gabriel. The young woman was Mary of Nazareth.

Advent is Mary’s time. It is a season of expectancy for the young mother who lives in anticipation. But all Christians, men and women alike, share in this pregnancy. This is a time of preparation for the arrival of a child, the nativity of Jesus. As surely as a young couple makes ready to receive a new child, we, too, must be prepared for this new arrival. This is the essence of the season of Advent for those of the Christian faith.

When Clare and I were married, we knew that we wanted to have children.  We prayed that God would give us a child when the time was right.  We became frustrated that God did not meet our schedule.  We went for medical help and were told that it was improbable that we would ever have our own biological child.  We pondered the possibility of adoption.  We were overjoyed when Clare became pregnant but very disappointed when she had a miscarriage three months later.  Again, we were told that for us, the probability of having children was remote.  We began to explore the possibility of adoption more seriously.  After several months, Clare was again pregnant.  The second pregnancy lasted longer.  Our hearts were broken following a second miscarriage.  I was angry.  Clare was grieving. 

On a walk into the woods with clenched fists and gritted teeth, I told God that I did not understand why some people had children they did not want and could not care for, yet we could not have a child. 

There was no flash of light, no audible voice, but a message came, clear as a bell, “Kirk, how can you expect to be a father until you learn to hurt?”

We initiated the long process of adoption with paperwork, home visits, and medical tests.  When we were finally approved, we prepared a nursery, and we waited. Within weeks before we were to receive our adopted child, we discovered that Clare was again pregnant.  The choice was difficult.  Should we terminate adoption and risk another disappointment?  Should we continue adoption proceedings with the possibility that we would have two infants just six months apart in age?  Our decision to terminate adoption was yet another grief for us. 

Clare carried our child full term.  We were expecting our firstborn to arrive on December 18, 1970.  As these things often go, the anticipated date came and went, but still no baby.

As Christmas approached, Clare and I waited at our home in Louisville, Kentucky, realizing that we would not be with either of our families for the holidays. We could not travel to New Orleans, where her parents resided, or to Spartanburg, where my family lived. We exchanged gifts with our families by mail.

 Christmas Eve arrived; our child had not. We enjoyed dinner together at our home. Before midnight, we opened one gift each. Then we called both of our families to wish them Merry Christmas.

Just after we went to bed, Clare had her first contraction. Suddenly, we were wide awake! At 5:00 A.M. on Christmas morning, we were on the way to Norton Infirmary in downtown Louisville. Soft, light snow was falling, and the streets were empty as we drove through the darkness.

At the hospital, I left Clare in labor and delivery and went to admissions to check her in as a patient. When I returned, her contractions had stopped, and she was sound asleep. I waited. Then, about noon on Christmas Day, she went into hard labor. We had taken Lamaze classes and thought we knew what to expect. When a mother gives birth in old cowboy movies, they send the husband out to boil water. Lamaze is something like that. It gives the father a coaching job to do while the mother works very hard.

At 3:26 P.M. on Christmas Day, our first child, Michael Kirk Neely, was born. We were overjoyed. Finally, we had a baby! And, he was born on Christmas! Both sets of grandparents were elated when we telephoned to announce our son’s arrival.

The birth of a child is always a miracle.

The word Advent comes from Latin, meaning to come. Some Christian carols become prayers of anticipation: “O Come, O Come, Immanuel” and “Come, Thou Long-expected Jesus.”

This year, the season of Advent begins on Sunday, November 29, 2020.  In a spiritual sense, all Christians are pregnant with anticipation.  Every year, we celebrate anew the birth of a child, not just any child, but the one born in Bethlehem.  To hold a newborn in your arms is a reminder of just how precious and fragile life is.  To cradle an infant in your arms on Christmas Day is a reminder that, in the birth of Jesus, God made himself very vulnerable. 

Because of the COVID-19 virus, this Christmas season promises to be different for many of us. The Gospel account makes it clear that Mary and Joseph experienced the birth of their child in difficult circumstances. They certainly were in isolation. They were confined to a stable out back, no less. 

Each Christmas, we draw close to the manger and gaze into the face of this child.  Look closely.  Did you notice the resemblance?  According to Christian tradition, this baby is the spitting image of his Father in heaven.

And so, we who are Christians kneel with shepherds and Magi. “O come, let us adore him, Christ, the Lord.”

Blessed Advent!

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor. His new book and first novel, December Light 1916, is available at all bookstores and online booksellers. He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com.

IN EVERYTHING GIVE THANKS

November 21, 2020

Note to readers: 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 The Salvation Army, P.O. Box 172557, Spartanburg, South Carolina, 29301-0062, (800) 725-2769.

Twenty years ago, just before Thanksgiving, our twenty-seven-year-old son, Erik, died suddenly. Some people lamented that our Thanksgiving would be ruined. We found just the opposite to be true. Beyond the parades, the football games, and the turkey, Thanksgiving became more meaningful. This year, amid a COVID-19 crisis, Thanksgiving will be different for most of us. It will also be difficult for many of us. How shall we approach this national holiday under our current circumstances?

Thanksgiving in this country has often been linked to times of hardship. For the Pilgrims of New England, the first winter in the New World was severe, and disease was rampant. Pneumonia and scurvy decimated the ranks of the colonists. By spring, fifteen of the eighteen wives had died, as had five of the twenty-eight children. Nineteen of the twenty-nine hired men and fifteen of the thirty sailors died from hard work in the harsh weather. Only five Pilgrim Fathers remained alive. Teenager Priscilla Mullins lost her entire family.

The bereavement and hardships of the winter of 1621 bound together Pilgrims and Strangers, the soldiers, sailors, and tradesmen who traveled with them. A hardened soldier, Miles Standish, tended the sick alongside Separatist William Brewster. Sneering sailors and praying Pilgrims now shared a bond of common suffering.

On March 16, a tall, half-naked man walked into the circle of startled villagers. He introduced himself as Samoset. He spoke only a little English. So, he left in frustration. Three days later, Samoset returned with Squanto, who knew English very well. These two Native Americans were largely responsible for the survival of the depleted English colony. Perhaps aware of the hardships the colonists had endured, the Indians taught the Europeans how to hunt and fish.

Following the death of Governor William Carver in April 1621, the Mayflower set sail for the return voyage to Europe. The fifty people of Plymouth Colony, more than half of them children, stayed in America.  Widows and widowers were united in marriage. Priscilla Mullins became the bride of John Alden.

Massasoit, Chief of the Narragansett tribe, befriended the Pilgrims. Native Americans advised the colonists on agricultural methods that enabled the Plymouth community to enjoy a good harvest.  On December 13, 1621, a three-day feast was planned. Massasoit came with ninety Indians. We often refer to that feast as the first Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. It is the least commercialized of all of our celebrations. It is the one day that all people of every faith can celebrate.

The Thanksgiving Proclamation of George Washington in 1789 during the first year of his presidency encouraged a fledgling country to “to acknowledge with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God.” 

In 1863, at the height of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln issued his Thanksgiving Proclamation. Even with a divided country in crisis, the president remembered the blessings of God. 

“They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God…. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States … to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence … commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged…”

Our deepest expressions of gratitude come amid our greatest difficulties.

A pastor and his wife from eastern North Carolina suffered the loss of their young adult son.  One dark, rainy night, he was severely injured in an automobile accident.  In the emergency room, the bleak diagnosis of severe trauma to the head prompted a transfer to the neurological intensive care unit.  Over the next few hours, a team of physicians concurred that the young man was brain dead.

The father knew from his experience as a pastor that his son’s death was imminent. The parents were reminded that their son had indicated a desire to be an organ donor.  His driver’s license confirmed his wish. Arrangements were made; paperwork was completed, so that when death came, as many organs as possible could be used for transplants. The following day, the decision to remove all life support was made.  The young man died within a matter of minutes. His organs were taken and distributed to other hospitals where recipients were awaiting transplants.

Organ donation procedure allows the donor’s family to know the names of organ recipients if both the donor’s family and the recipients agree.  The pastor and his wife wanted to know the names of the recipients, and three of the recipients agreed.  The couple received their names about the first of February.  They decided to invite these three recipients to a Thanksgiving meal at their home on the Saturday preceding Thanksgiving Day.

On the appointed day, the organ recipients and their spouses arrived at the couple’s home.  The pastor greeted them at the door and welcomed each one as the pastor’s wife put the food on the table.  Together they gathered to enjoy a Thanksgiving meal.  The pastor related the story of their Thanksgiving experience.

“As we stood in a circle to have the blessing, the woman who had received our son’s heart moved between my wife and me.  As we reached out to hold hands, she placed my wife’s hand on her right wrist and my fingers on her left wrist.  My wife and I could feel her pulse. We realized that we were feeling the pumping of our son’s strong heart, now transplanted in this woman’s body.

“Another of the recipients, a man, asked if he might return thanks.  We agreed and heard his prayer, blessing our home and us, and giving thanks for the life of our son.  We were aware that his voice was strong because our son’s lungs had been transplanted into his chest. 

“Sitting across the table from us during the meal was a young woman.  We realized that she looked at us with steel-blue eyes that were once the eyes of our son.

“It was,” concluded the pastor, “the most meaningful Thanksgiving we have ever had. Of course, we were still grieving. But we also had discovered hope. Our son had died, but he literally left a part of himself to everyone around the table. Our hearts were filled with gratitude as we met the people whose lives had been so changed by our son.”

The Apostle Paul wrote to the early faith community, “give thanks in all circumstances” (I Thessalonians 5:16). It is not an easy instruction to follow. We find some comfort in noting that Paul did not say that we are to be thankful for every circumstance. Rather, within the difficulties of life, we are to find reason to be grateful.

When life is hard, as it is for everyone, our tendency can be to become bitter and cynical. If we can find reasons to be grateful, even our most difficult experiences can be transformed.

Thanksgiving does not depend on our external circumstances. Thanksgiving is an internal condition of a grateful heart.

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor. His new book and first novel, December Light 1916, is available at all bookstores and online booksellers. He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com.

BEN FRANKLIN’S BAD IDEA

November 14, 2020

Note to readers: 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.

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the city of Philadelphia have been in the news lately. Both figured prominently in the recent national election. The city is well-known among sports fans. Their professional teams have won trophy cases filled with championship hardware in baseball, football, hockey, and basketball. The enthusiasm in the stands matches the intensity in the arena. Some of you will remember the December afternoon when Santa Claus was booed during a National Football League game.  I recall a Monday night game several years ago when Cam Newton, then the quarterback for the Carolina Panthers, endured a brutal pounding by the Philadelphia Eagles.  Newton was sacked nine times by the aggressive defensive line of the Eagles. The team from Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love, was not so kind to the team from Carolina.

I also recognize the historical importance of the Pennsylvania city. Independence Hall is a treasured location in American history, the site of origin for two of our defining documents, the Declaration of Independence and the United States of America’s Constitution. Philadelphia is the home of the Liberty Bell. The city was also the residence of the patriot pictured on our one- hundred-dollar bills, Benjamin Franklin. He is one of the most famous Americans of his time, considered to be a Founding Father of our country.

Franklin helped to establish a new nation and to define the structure and function of the American government.  The Philadelphia statesman played a significant role in crafting our Declaration of Independence and our Constitution.

Franklin’s inventions reveal a man of varied interests, many talents, boundless energy, and great curiosity. Ben had poor eyesight. Tired of continually taking his glasses off and on, he cut two pairs of spectacles in half.  Putting half of each lens in single frames, he invented bifocals. I am grateful for his invention every single day.

My family and I sincerely appreciate the fact that Ben Franklin founded the first public lending library. What a great idea!

Franklin learned much about ships during his eight voyages across the Atlantic Ocean. He suggested dividing a ship’s hold into watertight compartments so that if a leak occurred in one, the water would not spread throughout and sink the boat.

In colonial America, people warmed their homes with open fireplaces, a dangerous practice that burned a lot of wood. Ben invented a cast-iron furnace that used less wood and allowed for warmer, safer homes. His invention is still called the Franklin Stove. In the same vein, Ben also established the first fire department and the first fire insurance company. Think of that the next time you see one of the big trucks rushing to a fire.

As Postmaster, Franklin mapped mail delivery routes. He invented a simple odometer. When attached to his carriage, it allowed him to measure the distance of postal routes accurately. 

Inventor, businessman, writer, scientist, musician, humorist, diplomat, civic leader, international celebrity, and ladies’ man, Ben Franklin was a genius.

Like most brilliant folk, Ben Franklin had a few crazy notions.  The story of Ben’s famous kite is well known. Rigging a kite with wire and a brass key, he flew it in a thunderstorm.  Not a good idea. What a shock!  Because of him, meteorologists now refer to thunderstorms as electrical storms. Out of his hair-raising experiment came Ben’s invention of the lightning rod.

Franklin had many good ideas. He also had at least one terrible idea that could have altered the course of history and changed the celebration of Thanksgiving as we now know it.  Ben proposed to Congress that the wild turkey be designated as our national bird.  Thank goodness the distinguished group of legislators saw fit to overrule the patriot from Pennsylvania.  In their wisdom, Congress made the bald eagle our national bird, not the wild turkey.

Imagine how our lives might have been different if Benjamin Franklin had prevailed, and the turkey, rather than the eagle, had become the symbol of our great nation. We can all be glad that Ben Franklin did not have his way. Avid hunters among us look forward to the first day of April each year as the beginning of turkey season.  April Fool’s Day might be a different kind of experience if the wild turkey had become our national bird as Ben Franklin proposed.

Other differences in our culture would have seemed a little odd.

  • Our coins might be minted with turkeys on the reverse side rather than with eagles.  A flip of the coin might require a call, “Heads or turkeys?” 
  • The Great Seal of the United States of America might display the image of a wild turkey instead of a bald eagle. 
  • The professional football team in Ben Franklin’s City of Brotherly Love might not be the Philadelphia Eagles, but the Philadelphia Turkeys. 
  • When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed the lunar module of Apollo 11 on the surface of the moon, we might have heard the radio transmission, “Tranquility Base here. The turkey has landed.” 
  • The Boy Scouts of America might never have become the character developing organization that it is today.  Scouts might not be as motivated to make their way through the ranks if the highest award were the Turkey Scout Award.  To call a young person a Turkey Scout just doesn’t have the same ring as the honor of being an Eagle Scout.

I have a notion that Thanksgiving Day might be a different kind of celebration if families who gathered at Grandma’s house were praying over and feasting on our national symbol. We can be grateful that the eagle is on our coins, and the turkey is on our tables.

             Both ornithology and theology point to the eagle as a rare bird.  The eagle is a symbol of strength and achievement, representing the qualities of clear vision and vigilant protection.

The Bible includes multiple references to the eagle.  Turkeys, however, are never mentioned in Scripture. 

The COVID 19 pandemic will make our holiday celebrations different this year. Quarantines, social distancing, and face masks will alter the way we observe the day. Perhaps you will gather with fewer of your loved ones on Thanksgiving Day to enjoy a turkey dinner.  Before the meal, take a moment to give thanks for two birds, the turkey and the eagle.  You might choose to read Psalm 103, a beautiful prayer about the blessings of God that mentions the eagle.   Or perhaps you would enjoy the words of the prophet Isaiah in one of the best-loved references to the eagle:

But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength;

they shall mount up with wings as eagles;

they shall run, and not be weary;

and they shall walk, and not faint. (Isaiah 40:31 KJV)

True thanksgiving is as rare and as endangered as the bald eagle.

While turkey has become a Thanksgiving tradition, I know that other fowl are sometimes substituted. One year just before Thanksgiving, Clare and I were given two wild geese with instructions about how they were to be cooked. We followed the directions, and the birds were tasty. However, our children were not favorably impressed. The following year we resumed the tradition of turkey.

Some people prefer quail, Cornish game hens, or doves for Thanksgiving.

I recently heard a five-year-old child ask an interesting question. “Grandma, do we have to have turkey for Thanksgiving? Could we have fried chicken this year?”

I am grateful for both turkeys and for eagles. The truth is that Thanksgiving has nothing to do with the bird on our platter.  It has everything to do with the prayer in our hearts.

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor. His new book and first novel, December Light 1916, is available at all bookstores and online booksellers. He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com