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O, TANNENBAUM

December 8, 2019

For nearly fifty-four years Clare and I have enjoyed having a freshly-cut, fragrant evergreen to grace our home during the season of Advent. Over the years we have had Scotch pine trees, Canadian spruce trees, and red cedar trees for our Christmas tree. We have tried living trees with the root-ball intact placed in a large galvanized tub. Only one of those lived when we planted it in our yard. That was a Colorado blue spruce grown in the mountains of North Carolina and planted in the yard when we lived in Winston-Salem. By far, our favorite kind of tree is the Fraser fir grown above three thousand feet in the North Carolina highlands.

Many families in the Upstate participate in the tradition of decorating for the holiday season with a Christmas tree. Right before the first Sunday of Advent, we begin our decorating for Christmas. A wreath with a red ribbon on the front door and a Moravian star on the front porch are usually our first decorations. Those are followed closely by several nativity sets on available surfaces in various rooms of the house. The Christmas tree is up and decorated a little later.

Last year, a fresh Christmas tree was hefted into our home by our son-in-law. Once the Fraser fir was in place I followed a long-standing tradition. Years ago I developed the habit of tying the top of the tree trunk to a hook in the ceiling using a length of parachute cord. That extra precaution was deemed necessary after one of our young sons tried to climb the limbs. That is just one of many Christmas tree perils.

Once our tree was properly aligned, watered, and anchored to the ceiling, it was time to adorn the fir. Clare found Christmas music on the radio. The tree was beautifully decorated by our children and grandchildren. First, 1000 white lights were tucked into the thick green branches. Next, ornaments accumulated over more than fifty years of marriage were suspended from every available spot. Then, crocheted and tatted snowflakes along with crystal icicles and stars were added. Finally, a small Moravian star supported by a crystal angel was affixed to the tip-top.

When the entire project was completed, one of our grandsons asked, “Where did the idea of bringing a tree into the house begin?” Great question! Dead needle accumulation, clogged vacuum cleaner bags, and the hazard of fire are some of the Christmas tree perils.

Last year, several days after Christmas, I hoisted from its stand the Christmas tree that had graced our home for several weeks. As always, I wrestled it out of the front door, leaving an impressive accumulation of Fraser fir needles in its wake. Returning to the living room, I found one of my teenage helpers already vacuuming the pesky remains from the carpet. I raised yet again, the obvious question first uttered by my Uncle Asbury, long ago and in the same house, “Whoever thought that cutting a tree, bringing it inside the house, and letting it dry out for a few weeks was a good idea?”

Legend has it that one cold starlit night just before Christmas; Martin Luther brought a fir tree into his home, decorating it with candles to bring the light of Christmas inside. Unfortunately, a home with a freshly cut tree inside may bring in more than just the light of Christmas.

Our friends in the pest control business have numerous stories about unwanted critters that entered homes nestled in a Christmas tree. A praying mantis egg case lodged deep within the branches entered a home undetected. Warmed to room temperature, the eggs hatched, releasing hundreds of green insects.

Similar experiences with ladybug beetles are not uncommon. While both the praying mantis and the ladybug beetle are useful insects in the great outdoors, indoors they are regarded as pests.

When I was a boy, we cut our Christmas tree from a family farm in southern Spartanburg County. On a Saturday afternoon several weeks before Christmas, we scoured the woods for holly branches laden with red berries. We found mistletoe loaded with white berries high up in oak trees. We cut holly branches with pruning shears and shot mistletoe out of treetops with a rifle. With a bow saw, we cut a red cedar Christmas tree. We loaded the greenery on a lumber truck and made our way back to Spartanburg.

On one occasion, my dad, my brothers, and I brought our fragrant red cedar into our living room. The family decorated the tree that night, enjoying popcorn and hot chocolate together.

Several days later, my mother, in a panic, telephoned my dad at the lumberyard. The red cedar tree was crawling with red spiders. It was highly unusual for my mother to call the lumberyard and even more out of the ordinary for my dad to leave his place of business. But when he heard the distress in mama’s voice, dad rushed home to haul the Christmas tree, decorations and all, into the front yard. After spraying it with foul-smelling pesticide, he later brought the cedar back into the house. That Christmas, the cedar fragrance never returned, even after we hung cedar-scented car deodorizers like Christmas ornaments on the branches.

In recent years, Clare and I have purchased a Fraser fir for Christmas. Several years ago, I noticed that our Fraser fir grown in North Carolina had a certificate attached to the top, indicating that the tree had been treated with pesticides. That comforting assurance was short-lived. Within several days, creepy black bugs appeared all over the carpet and the drapes near the tree. Our certified fir was infested with black pine aphids. Our pest control friends rushed to the rescue. The tree and our living room had to be sprayed thoroughly.

When our children were young, they made a pallet out of an old quilt spread beneath the tree and pretended to be camping in the woods. Our son, Erik, liked to sleep under the Christmas tree. When he died in November 2000, Clare suggested that we put a Christmas tree on his grave. We found comfort in the memory of our son sleeping under a Fraser fir.

Every Christmas since I have placed a tree on Erik’s plot at Greenlawn. It was decorated with one gleaming brass star on top. This year we have made a change. Realizing that we are at a different time in our lives, we have decided not to put a tree on Erik’s grave this year. Instead, we are designating a place in our gazebo as a suitable spot for Erik’s tree.

Once again this year we will enjoy a fresh Christmas tree in our living room; fresh at least until the needles start falling off. Perhaps the most beautiful Christmas tree of all is the one we call Erik’s tree. We remember how much he delighted in taking a nap under the branches. The last line of a beloved Christmas carol, like a lullaby, comes to mind as a prayer for Erik. “Sleep in heavenly peace. Sleep in heavenly peace.”

MADONNA IN BLUE JEANS

December 1, 2019

Long ago and far 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 midwife nor 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 of us, 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 ready for this new arrival. This is the essence of the season of Advent for those of the Christian faith.

When Clare and I got 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 a child biologically. We pondered the possibility of adoption. We were overjoyed when Clare became pregnant but very disappointed when three months later, she had a miscarriage. Again, we were told that for us the possibility of having children was remote. We began to explore the possibility of adoption more seriously. After several months, Clare again became pregnant. The second pregnancy lasted longer, and our hearts were broken following a second miscarriage. I was angry. Clare was grieving.

We initiated the long process of adoption with paperwork, home visits, and medical tests. 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 proceedings was 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 in Louisville, realizing that we would not be with either of our families for the holidays. We could neither travel to New Orleans, where her parents resided, nor 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 in our home. Before midnight, we opened one gift each. Then we called both 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., we were on the way to Norton Infirmary in downtown Louisville. A soft, light snow was falling, and the streets were empty as we drove through the dark Christmas morning.

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. In old cowboy movies, when a mother is giving birth, 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, born on Christmas Day! 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.”

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 an infant in your arms is a reminder of just how precious and fragile a life is. To hold your newborn arms on Christmas Day is a reminder that in the birth of Jesus, God made himself very vulnerable.

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

I have always been fascinated by the description of Mary as a woman with a pondering heart. As a teenage mother she had much to ponder; most of all, the miracle she held in her arms and the responsibility of being his mother. In truth, the birth of every child is a miracle. Every child requires a lot of tending, even when that child is Jesus.

I miss my mother more at Christmastime than at any other time of year. She loved this season, decorating her home, hosting friends and family, and as much as anything else, rocking her grandchildren.

One of the great comforts for me at Christmas is to see mothers and grandmothers holding little babies. So many Christmas cards depict Mary and Jesus, Madonna and child, in soft pastel tones. Many Christmas carols present the same picture. “What Child is this, who, laid to rest on Mary’s lap, is sleeping?” Little babies do sleep and are sometimes calm and peaceful. But they can also be quite demanding. Though He was the Son of God, Jesus was also fully human. In the familiar carol, “Away In a Manger,” I doubt that the line “no crying He makes” was true for very long.

The word Madonna is Latin for my lady. A part of Christmas for me is to take note of the real-life Madonnas in my world: our nieces cradling a great-nephew or great-niece; a young mother sitting on the front row of our Sanctuary holding her newborn as she listens to the Christmas Cantata; grandmothers taking delight in their third- generation offspring, giving new mothers a temporary break from the constant demands of parenting.

Among the most precious images of the Madonna in my life are the pictures of our daughters-in-law and our daughter holding their children. These images of young mothers, often barefooted and wearing blue jeans, cradling a newborn child are visions that are as compelling as any Christmas cards.

For nearly fifty years, I have witnessed the love and care and constant attention of one of the finest mothers I have ever known. When our children were very young, I would sometimes come home from a day of ministry to find a Carolina Madonna in blue jeans, faithfully carrying out the ministry God gave her. I have seen her attend to our children at the expense of her own needs. Now we have thirteen grandchildren. Clare thinks about them constantly and wants to be with them whenever possible. The longer I am with Clare, the more I appreciate her and see in her the same maternal love so beautifully depicted in the face of Mary.

There is a special place in heaven for women like these. I imagine it to be a place that looks something like the front porch of a Cracker Barrel restaurant. There are plenty of rocking chairs. My mother and mother-in-law are there. Both of my grandmothers are there. Every woman is rocking and singing to a babe in arms. Those babies, who in my mind have gone to heaven in what seems to us an untimely way, are bringing their own special joy to eternity. And those women and those children experience Christmas, as one of our favorite carols puts it, “in heavenly peace.”

For those who have lost a mother or a grandmother, Christmas can be difficult, especially if the loss is recent. It is my hope and prayer that all of you will catch a glimpse of a real-life Madonna and that you, too, will know the blessing of heavenly peace.

Blessed Advent!

A KENTUCKY THANKSGIVING

November 28, 2019

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. It is the least commercialized of all our celebrations. The fourth Thursday of November, for most of us, is a day to pause an express our gratitude before Black Friday, identified as one of the busiest shopping days of the year. The brief respite is a time for reflection, for heart-felt 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 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 of 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 food 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 and 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 OK.” 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.

BEN FRANKLIN’S BAD IDEA

November 24, 2019

Cam Newton, quarterback for the Carolina Panthers football team, has been placed on injured reserve for the remainder of the 2019 season. I recall a Monday night game several years ago when Newton endured a brutal pounding by the Philadelphia Eagles. The Panther quarterback was sacked nine times by the aggressive defensive line of the Eagles. As I watched Monday Night Football, I thought the team from Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love, was not so kind to the team from Carolina

Then I recalled 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 Constitution of the United States of America. 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 one of our Founding Fathers.

Franklin helped to establish a new nation and to define the structure and function of American government. The Philadelphia statesman played a major 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 constantly 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 deeply 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 ship.

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 very bad 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. For those among us who look forward to the first day of April each year as the beginning of turkey hunting 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 things in our culture would have been different, too.

  • 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 man 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.

Perhaps you will gather with 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)

 

Each year the traditional Black Friday shopping frenzy encroaches on Thanksgiving Day. True thanksgiving is as rare and as endangered as the 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 directions 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 glad Congress rejected Ben Franklin’s idea. 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 heart.

THANKSGIVING CHILDREN

November 16, 2019

I was preaching at a community Thanksgiving service 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 discreetly placed on the pulpit a note written in large letters:

GO HOME NOW! CLARE IS IN LABOR!

I left the sanctuary through a back door, hurrying to our Pontiac station wagon. We were the parents of three sons with a fourth child on the way. As I hurriedly drove through the rainy night, I realized that the length of labor for Clare had been shorter with each successive birth. This baby would probably arrive before morning.

Back in those days before we had cell phones, I could not check with Clare ahead of time. When I arrived at our home, I found that a good friend had come to stay with Clare and had offered to stay with our three sons. Clare met me in the driveway, her bag packed and ready to go. Before getting into the car, she paused, bracing against the fender through an intense contraction.

We had gone through Lamaze childbirth classes. I had been privileged to be present in the delivery room with Clare for all three births. We might have thought that we were old hands at this, but I had learned from my dad, the father of eight, that each birth is different.

“Let’s get you to the hospital,” I said to Clare, helping her into the car.

“Did you get the message?” she asked.

“Yes. How far apart are your contractions?”

I didn’t need to ask. She had gripped the dashboard, having another hard contraction.

“About that far,” she groaned.

I reached over and took Clare’s hand as I drove through the misty darkness, offering an open-eyed prayer, “Gracious God, be with Clare and this child. Help me get them to the hospital, please.”

I pulled into the emergency drive of Forsyth County Hospital and parked at the door. A security officer stopped me, saying, “Sir, you can’t park here.”

“But my wife is in labor and needs to get to the delivery room, now!”

The officer summoned a triage nurse who met us at the door and asked, “How close are her contractions?”

Right on cue, Clare had another one.

Two orderlies appeared with a gurney and whisked her away, leaving me to provide necessary basic information. Fortunately, Clare and I had gone through a preadmission process, so it didn’t take long before I could leave admitting and go to the delivery area.

As the nurse there directed me to scrub and dress in a mask and gown, she said, “Your wife is waiting for you. We didn’t have time to prep her, and she wants you to be with her.”

And I wanted to be with Clare.

In the delivery room, I moved near Clare’s head, kissing her on the cheek.

“I’m ready now,” she said.

“Okay, Mama, give me a big push!” instructed the physician. “Now, one more big push!”

We had gone through the birthing process three times before. It is rightly called labor for the mother. For both of us, it was always a miracle. Our fourth son, Kristofer Mitchell Neely, was born at 10:30 P. M. on the Tuesday night before Thanksgiving.

When I brought Clare and Kris home from the hospital on Thanksgiving Day, our three older boys, all dressed as Pilgrims and Native Americans, greeted us. Members of our church had graciously provided a traditional dinner of turkey and all the fixings. That day remains one of our favorite Thanksgiving memories.

A Thanksgiving child gives a family a special reason for gratitude. American author Carl Sandburg wrote, “A baby is God’s opinion that the world should go on.”

When our children celebrate a birthday, we share the story of their arrival in this world. Our grandchildren enjoy hearing those stories.

During our family Thanksgiving celebrations, I share the stories of three children born early in the history of this country.

Elizabeth Hopkins gave birth to a son aboard the Mayflower while crossing the Atlantic during the historic voyage which brought the Pilgrims to America. His father, Stephen Hopkins, named the infant Oceanus, the Latin word for ocean. The child’s birth occurred sometime between the boarding date of September 6 and the arrival date of November 9, 1620. Oceanus did not live beyond his third year.

Born August 18, 1587, Virginia Dare was the first child born in the Americas to English parents, Ananias and Eleanor Dare. Virginia was born into the short-lived Roanoke Colony in what is now Eastern North Carolina. What became of this child and other members of the Lost Colony has remained a mystery.

Virginia’s birth is known because the leader of the colony, John White, was Virginia’s maternal grandfather. Following her birth, Governor White returned to England to seek assistance for the new settlement. When he returned three years later, the colonists had vanished.

Peregrine White was the first child born in Plymouth Colony. His parents, William and Susanna White, had boarded the Mayflower with their young son, Resolved. Susanna gave birth to Peregrine before the end of November 1620 while the Mayflower was anchored in Provincetown Harbor.

William White died that first winter in Plymouth Colony. Susanna White married fellow Mayflower passenger Edward Winslow. In 1636, Edward and Susanna moved their blended family to the new settlement of Marshfield, north of Plymouth.

Peregrine had his first military experience at age sixteen and continued to serve in the militia, first as a lieutenant and then as a captain. Like most of the settlers, Peregrine was a farmer. He served his community as a representative to the General Court. He married Sarah Basset in 1648. The couple had seven children. At age seventy-eight, Peregrine officially joined the Marshfield church. He lived until July of 1704, dying at the age of eighty-three.

Around our family table, each Thanksgiving we read this poem written by Rosemary and Stephen Vincent Benet about Peregrine White and Virginia Dare. The poem says these children were the first Americans. That, of course, is untrue. There were many Native Americans that came before Peregrine and Virginia. H

Here is an excerpt from the poem with apologies to Native Americans.

 

Peregrine White

And Virginia Dare

Were the first real Americans

Anywhere.

 

Others might find it

Strange to come

Over the ocean

To make a home.

 

One of them born

On Roanoke,

And the other cradled

In Pilgrim oak.

 

Men might grumble

And women weep

But Virginia and Peregrine

Went to sleep.

 

They had their dinner

And napped and then

When they woke up

It was dinner again.

 

There was lots of work

But they didn’t do it.

They were pioneers

But they never knew it.

 

Wolves in the forest

And Indian drums!

Virginia and Peregrine

Sucked their thumbs.

 

They were only babies.

They didn’t care.

Peregrine White

And Virginia Dare.

 

After we read the poem, we recite Psalm 100. More importantly, we give thanks, not only for the food on our table but also for the family gathered around and those who are far away.

The truth is that all children are Thanksgiving children.

NATIVE AMERICAN VETERANS

November 9, 2019

Marvin Joe Curry was a Native American, a member of the Seneca Nation’s Snipe Clan. In 1950 he left high school to enlist in the Navy, and he served two tours of duty during the Korean War. He entered the Naval Officer Candidate School in 1966 and graduated as a chief warrant officer. He was deployed to Vietnam. During his active duty in the Navy, he was aboard eight warships and saw combat in two wars. Joe was a skilled deep-sea rescue diver. He received numerous honors and retired from the Navy in 1997.

The Marvin Joe Curry Veterans Powwow is an annual event held by the Seneca tribe in honor of all United States veterans. It has been my privilege to attend numerous Native American powwows from Cherokee, North Carolina, to Sisseton, South Dakota. Without exception, the American flag and veterans of military service are honored. In the grand entry a veteran followed by other veterans carries the Stars and Stripes into the dance circle. Next weekend, November 8 and 9, 2019, Veterans Day Powwows will be held in Austin, Texas, in Richmond, Virginia, and in Clearfield, Pennsylvania.

In the fall of 1995, I met Goingback Chiltoskey in Cherokee, North Carolina. This remarkable man grew up watching his father carve wooden implements used by his family. Even before he went to school, Goingback was making his own toys.

“My dad made things that were needed around the house—spoons, handles for tools—most everything we had had to be made. I guess I just grew up with it.”

Goingback learned how to use a pocketknife from his older brother, ten years his senior. In 1917, at age ten, Chiltoskey was sent to the Cherokee Boarding School. Attending through ninth grade, Chiltoskey’s Cherokee Boarding School experience included a half of a day of academics and a half of a day of industrial training. Chiltoskey did carpentry and made repairs to the school. While he did learn some rudimentary skills in the classroom, woodcarving became the focus of his free time.

In 1927, when Chiltoskey was twenty years old, he moved to Greenville, South Carolina to attend the Parker District High School. Parker was known for its woodworking program. Chiltoskey learned other important skills that would serve him well in later life. He mastered mechanical drawing and learned to draft and read blueprints.

In 1929, Chiltoskey went to the Haskell Institute in Lawrence, Kansas. After returning home in 1935, he taught woodworking at Cherokee High School and continued to attend summer school at the Art Institute of Chicago where he studied carving, handicrafts, industrial arts, and sculpture. He became a master woodcarver among the Cherokee people.

In 1942, Chiltoskey left for Washington, D. C. His skill as a woodcarver placed him in U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at Fort Belvoir, where he made three-dimensional scale models from blueprints. Chiltoskey worked on a variety of war-related secret projects, creating terrain maps for invasions, scale models of strategic bombing targets, and a model of an atom. His service to this country was invaluable.

The culture of America’s first people included dances to prepare for battle. Many tribes practiced a war dance on the evening before an attack to observe certain religious rites to ensure success. If the battle was successful, the warriors were honored for their courage and their valor with another dance. The contemporary powwow continues the tradition of honoring warriors.

On Veterans Day soldiers and the citizens join in a time of remembrance. Elmer Davis, Director of the United States Office of War Information during World War II, said, “This nation will remain the land of the free only so long as it is the home of the brave.” November 11 is designated as a day of gratitude for the brave.

On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918, an armistice ending World War I between Germany and the Allied nations went into effect. The following year President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed that Armistice Day, November 11, should be “filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory”.

In 1926, the United States Congress declared that the anniversary of the armistice should be commemorated with prayer and thanksgiving. The flag of the United States was to be displayed on all Government buildings.

This day was originally intended to honor veterans of World War I. In 1954, by act of Congress, November 11 became a day to honor all American veterans. The day became Veterans Day.

The Navajo Code Talkers are an unusual group of veterans. The twenty-nine young Navajo men who stepped into the Marine recruiter’s office one morning in 1942 were unsure what their futures would hold.

“I thought the Marine Corps was going to give me a belt of ammunition, and a rifle, a steel helmet, and a uniform,” recalled Chester Nez, in a 2004 interview. Nez wasn’t altogether wrong. He and his tribesmen would fight in battles across the Pacific and European fronts. But these courageous young men were destined for something more.

Though they have received little acknowledgment for their service, the hundreds of Navajos and other Native American tribesmen in the U.S. Military’s Code Talkers program helped pave the way for the Allied victory in World War II.

The program was developed in 1942, when Philip Johnson, a World War I veteran who had been raised on a Native American reservation, suggested to the Marine Corps to help ensure the secrecy of communications during World War II. By translating all messages into Native American languages, they could reduce the risk of interference from the enemy who were trying to crack their codes. After viewing a demonstration, Marine officers were impressed. They immediately recruited twenty-nine Navajo Code Talkers, who were charged with the task of developing a military code in their native language.

Though some words in the code were direct translations from English to Navajo, other codes were more complex, using the tribal name of a type of animal to represent each letter of the alphabet. In some cases, the Native Americans would invent new words for military vocabulary that had no translation in their own languages: “When they first recruited us as Code Talkers, we had to work that out among ourselves. We didn’t have a word for tank,” said Charles Chibbity. “It has a hard shell, and it moves, and so we called it a wakaree´e, a turtle.”

The Code Talkers were key to the Allied victory in the Pacific. Risking life and limb, watching friends and comrades die, they held the fate of their country in their hands every day. Thanks to the Code Talkers, the Axis forces never cracked a single message from the Allied troops.

Despite their essential role in the war, the Code Talkers weren’t acknowledged for over a quarter of a century. They were not even permitted to tell their own families about the work they had done to protect their country.

In 1968, the military declassified the Code Talkers programs, and those who served were finally honored for their service in wartime. In 2001, the surviving veterans of the Navajo Code Talkers program were presented with Congressional Medals of Honor. On the back of the medals was an inscription in the Navajo language: “With the Navajo language they defeated the enemy.”

Though few of the Code Talkers are still alive today, those who’ve spoken about their experiences serving in World War II are proud heroes. “I was fighting for all Indian people, and all the people in the United States,” said Navajo Code Talker, Sam Tso.

At an intertribal powwow in Asheville, North Carolina, I observed with interest the many native peoples who joined in the dance. I was especially interested in a man decked out in the regalia of a Comanche dancer. He wore a ribbon shirt, eagle feathers in his hair, silver bracelets and bandoliers, buckskin leggings, and exquisite ribbon work done on trade cloth. He was a tall man with commanding presence. His right leg had been amputated at the knee. He was fitted with a prosthesis, and he walked with a cane. He sat on a bench for most of the powwow until a special dance was announced to honor veterans. He rose with dignity and danced with halting steps. He carried a small American flag in his right hand. As he passed, I noticed that pinned to his trade cloth trailer was a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. I later learned that he was a Marine Corps veteran who lost his leg in Vietnam.

Veterans Day, November 11, is an opportunity for all of us to remember with gratitude those who have served in war and in peace. Native Americans are among those to whom we are grateful.

HOW THE GRINCH ALMOST STOLE HALLOWEEN

October 26, 2019

When I was a boy, back in the days before the Grinch stole Halloween, October 31 was one of the most anticipated evenings of the year. My friends and I looked forward to the carnival at the elementary school we attended. Halloween was second only to Christmas Eve when excitement, for kids, permeated the night air. No sooner had the sun gone down, than costumed kids of every age flooded the streets of the neighborhood, knocking on doors and shouting, “Trick-or-treat!”

Parents escorting their children stood a few yards away, guardian angels watching over small gremlins and goblins. The trick-or-treaters carried pillowcases or paper bags to collect their bounty.

My friend Rusty always dressed as a pirate, carrying a large pillowcase in which to stash his booty. He stuffed a second pillowcase into his pocket, just in case the first one reached capacity. Rusty’s Halloween range was far greater than mine. He worked his neighborhood of Ben Avon before dark and then came to my street about the time I walked out of my house dressed as a hobo.

We ventured from one house to the next collecting treats. Rusty carried a spray can of whipping cream as he made his rounds. If the treat he received at a home was particularly generous, Rusty marked the driveway with a whipped cream star. A full-sized candy bar – Hershey, Snickers, Milky Way, or Three Musketeers – merited a star. Those were the houses he returned to later in the evening.

Occasionally, we would have meetings with other trick-or-treaters to discuss which houses gave out the best goodies. Rusty was like a crafty angler, concealing his best fishing hole.

Sometimes Rusty would trade treats with other consultants. He always came out on the better end of the deal. I saw him trade three packs of Juicy Fruit chewing gum for a Hershey Chocolate Almond bar and a pack of Topps Baseball cards. The pack had both a Mickey Mantle and a Willie Mays card inside!

I am not sure when the innocence of the holiday was lost, but, with apologies to Dr. Seuss, the Grinch tried to steal Halloween. Due to the general malice of some people, trick-or-treating turned violent. Vandalism replaced tricks. Some treats even became serious threats. Needles and razor blades were hidden in candy and in apples.

Halloween fireworks took their toll. One of my sisters was burned when someone rolled a cherry bomb beneath her toddler feet. A friend lost sight in one eye following a firecracker accident. The reputation of a playful holiday was sullied.

Movies added to the rising sense of terror. Nightmare on Elm Street and its numerous sequels made Freddy Krueger a frightening legend. Chainsaw horrors and slasher films, including no less than ten Halloween movies, contributed to the hijacking of a kid’s delight.

Long ago on October 31 and November 1, the Celts celebrated the end of the summer with the harvest festival known as Samhain. They believed it was a time when the dead could visit the living by passing through the thin veil separating this world from the next. They believed that during these few days, they could be reunited with loved ones who were deceased. Bonfires were lit to ward off any menacing spirits that might also return.

Pope Gregory III moved the Christian feast known as All Saints’ Day to November 1 to give Samhain a Christian interpretation. The term Halloween is derived from All Hallows’ Eve, the evening before All Saints’ Day. The Christian church recognized October 31 as the day before a holy day, so Halloween became a holiday of sorts.

Five hundred years ago, in 1517, the leader of what became known as the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther, chose All Hallows’ Eve as the day to nail to the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany, the Ninety-Five Theses or points of disagreement with the Roman Catholic Church. In those days the church door was like the town kiosk, a place to post public notices. Luther chose the day because he knew many people would attend church on All Saints’ Day.

Luther hoped to raise awareness and prompt discussion in order to bring about needed church reforms. Instead, his plan created such a stir that the church eventually suffered a series of divisions. Many Protestants regard Luther as a hero of the faith. To many Catholics he is considered to be an incendiary rabble rouser. Many Protestant Christians celebrate Reformation Day on October 31. Luther triumphal hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is our God,” is a part of the event.

In recent years, conservative Christians, alarmed by the vandalism and violence associated with Halloween, have renewed the battle to end its observance. The conflict has produced charges from both sides that are unfair and untrue. While conservative Christians want to eliminate Halloween altogether; others prefer to reinterpret it as a holy day.

The celebration of Halloween is as varied as the opinions about the day and its meaning. Many churches have replaced Halloween festivals with Noah’s Ark parties. A dedicated preschool director said to me last year, “We encourage the children to dress up like animals. We always get a Batman or a Spiderman in the mix. I guess bats and spiders are considered animals even in their superhero form.”

The church I served until my retirement celebrated with a Fall Family Festival, one of the happiest events of the entire year. Children and adults dressed up in crazy costumes. The event featured games similar to the ones that were a part of Halloween carnivals when I was a boy. Trunk-or-Treat replaced Trick-or-Treat. Families decorated the trunk of their cars or the bed of their pickup trucks. The vehicles were arranged along both sides of a long parking area. Children and their parents moved car-to-car rather than door-to-door, gathering goodies from friendly adults they knew very well.

Present-day families have numerous options. Some omit Halloween altogether. Others celebrate it as a traditional holiday. Still others try to find some middle ground. Even within extended families, there may not be agreement.

An eleven-year-old boy was looking forward to Halloween. His parents had always allowed him to dress up and go trick-or-treating. That year his mom and dad were out of town, and his aunt was staying with him.

“There will be no celebrating of Halloween while I’m in charge!” his aunt declared. “You can go to the party at church, but if you want to wear a costume, it must be something from the Bible.”

The boy retired to his room to ponder his dilemma. He devised a brilliant solution. He dressed himself in assorted sports equipment. With his Scout hatchet in one hand and a garbage can lid in the other, he reported to his stern aunt.

The sight of her nephew startled the aunt. “Young man, I told you that your costume had to be something from the Bible. Please explain this garb.”

“Look in Ephesians, Chapter 6,” the lad directed. “I have put on the whole armor of God. My karate sash is the belt of truth. My soccer shin guards and cleats mean that I am shod with the gospel of peace. My catcher’s chest protector is the breastplate of righteousness. My football headgear is the helmet of salvation. And the garbage can lid is the shield of faith.”

His aunt knew the Scripture well, but still not convinced, she quizzed, “And what about the Scout hatchet?”

“I didn’t have anything to use as the sword of the Spirit, so this is the ax of the apostles.”

The Grinch was outwitted again!