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DECK THE HALLS

December 4, 2016
christmas-wreath

On the Friday after Thanksgiving we began decorating for the season of Advent and Christmas. The Moravian star on our front porch was the first ornament in place. It will be the last to come down on Epiphany.  Five strong and willing teenagers helped through the morning placing our Fraser fir tree in the living room and another in our gazebo. By noon both trees were glistening with lights and ornaments. Nativity scenes depicting the Holy Family surrounded by shepherds and wise men had been delivered from their nine month hibernation in our basement into the light of Advent.

The tradition of bringing greenery into our homes at Christmas originated centuries ago with the ancient Celtics. The Druids were fearful that the winter solstice, marked by the decreasing light of the sun, 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. In Celtic countries the use of holly and ivy were more common than the German custom of bringing an entire tree into the home.

Last year, as in every past year, I hoisted from its stand the Christmas tree that had graced our home for several weeks. 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 Clare vacuuming the remains from the carpet.

I raised the obvious question, first uttered by my Uncle Asbury.  Long ago, standing in the same room in the same house, he asked, “Whoever thought that cutting a tree, carrying it inside the house, and letting it dry out for a few weeks was a good idea?” Read more…

ADVENT AND THE EMPTY CHAIR

November 27, 2016
empty-chair

The headline caught my eye, “Man Spends Christmas Eve in Septic Tank.” In an article dated December 26, 2007, the Associated Press carried the humorous and frightening story.

Robert Schoff, a 77-year-old man from Des Moines, Iowa, spent part of Christmas Eve stuck upside down in the opening of his septic tank, with his head inside and his feet kicking in the air above.

“I don’t think I could have stood staying in there much more,” he said as he recovered from his ordeal. “It wasn’t good! It was a stinky holiday! I’ll tell you what,” Schoff said on Christmas Day, “It was the worst Christmas Eve I’ve ever had.”

Schoff reached into the tank on Christmas Eve in an effort to clear a clogged drain. He lost his balance and became wedged in the opening. The elderly Schoff shouted for help, but in this upside-down position his voice was muffled.  It was more than an hour before his wife, Toni, walked by a window and noticed his feet flailing in the air.

“I saw these kicking feet. I ran to him, but I couldn’t get him out,” Mrs. Schoff said.

She called 911. County sheriff’s deputies arrived and yanked her husband out of the tank.

“I thought it was the end of my life,” Schoff said.

What a way to go that would have been!

The season of Advent has begun. For all of our careful planning, the holidays often confront us with unexpected crises. I spent most of one Christmas Eve in the surgical chair of an ear, nose, and throat specialist. I had a hemorrhage resulting in a severe nosebleed. The physician cauterized and packed my sinuses with gauze for well over two hours. It was not the best Christmas Eve for me, for the physician, or for our families. Still, it was not as bad as Robert Shoff’s plight.

The heightened stress of the season seems to make some folks more accident-prone. I have a friend who spent the last two weeks of December on crutches after stepping in a hole while caroling in his neighborhood.

By far the most difficult holidays are those times when we are separated from loved ones. The painful absence is symbolized by an empty chair at the family table.

I vaguely remember Christmas 1948 when I was four years old. The entire Neely family gathered on Christmas Eve for our annual Christmas dinner. Following the meal, we recited the story of Jesus’ birth from Luke 2.  We sang Christmas carols, Pappy led a prayer, and we exchanged gifts. That night my little sister Beth and I stayed with Mammy and Pappy.

Mama was at the hospital giving birth to her third child. My brother Bill was born on December 24 that year. According to my aunts and uncles, I spent much of that Christmas looking for Mama. Jesus was born, and Santa Claus came, but Mama was not there.

The holidays are frequently tinged with grief.  The season has often been a bittersweet experience for our family, a mixture of joy and sadness. In fact, when you are a part of a large family, you learn that life itself is a dichotomy. Ambivalent feelings about any event abound. Humor and sadness, laughter and tears, mingle on many family gatherings.

In the Neely family, it is rarely possible to have everybody together for any occasion. I remember a birthday party for one my brothers-in-law. Most of the family was present except for the honoree. He had suddenly come down with the flu and was confined to quarters while the rest of us partied on.

Some of us who are physicians and ministers are frequently called away from family events to fulfill our responsibilities in the community.  So, we have learned to be grateful for those who can gather. Celebrations still happen even when there are empty chairs at the table.

In my grandparent’s family, there were several holiday seasons when three sons and a son-in-law were serving in World War II. At the same time, another son and his family were far away on the mission field in South America.

At almost every celebration, a few are absent. An expectant mother and her family may be unable to travel during the holidays. Sometimes a student is traveling on foreign study. Our son Scott spent his junior year at Wofford College living with a family in France. The next year he was in India during the holidays. The Christmas after our son Erik’s death, our son Kris traveled aboard a hammock boat on the Amazon River.

I will never forget the December when three different times in three consecutive weeks I stood beside an open grave with grieving parents as tiny caskets were lowered into the ground. The deaths of those children meant that their bereaved families would mourn a painful absence during the holidays. One of those tiny coffins was for our infant niece, Katherine. Our entire family was affected by her death.

Clare and I have experienced some of the joy and the sorrow that Christmas can bring. Our oldest child, Mike, was born on Christmas Day in 1970. As we awaited his birth, the season of Advent was filled with anticipation and hope. The uncertainty and apprehension of becoming new parents was part of our emotional mix. Christmas was a day of fulfillment for us.

Thirty years later, our second son, Erik, died two weeks before Thanksgiving. Christmas that year was a season of deep grief for us. Still, we were able to find a measure of peace and joy mingled with our tears.

November in South Carolina is usually a mild month.  Not until after Thanksgiving does the weather begin to really feel like winter. Erik died on November 15, 2000, in Charleston.  The temperature in the Lowcountry was warm that day.  We returned from Charleston to our home in the Upstate with the sky bright and sunny.  But the day of Erik’s funeral dawned grey, cold, and damp.  Temperatures continued to fall through the day.  By the time we arrived at the church for the funeral, light snow was falling.  When we went to the cemetery for the committal service, the ground was covered with snow.

Some expressed regret that the weather was inclement on the day of our son’s service.  We felt differently. In our imagination, we thought that Erik had put in a request to the Almighty. “Lord, you know this will be a hard day for my family.  Could you do something to surprise them?”

We viewed the snow as a symbol of hope. We interpreted the snow as a gentle touch from God, a gift of grace in our grief.  Many of the Christmas cards and Christmas presents we received that year included a snow theme. As Christmas approached, we decided to decorate our Christmas tree with only snowflakes and snow ornaments.  Hand-cut snowflakes adorned our windows.

One of the truths that Clare and I have learned is that grief, especially following the death of a young person, casts a long shadow. Our grief for Erik lingers and is heightened in every holiday season.

But there is another truth.

Our widowed daughter-in-law, June, majored in art at Furman University. She is an accomplished artist. After Erik’s death, June painted a stunning watercolor. It was a table set for a party, but it included an empty chair, a poignant reminder of absence. The painting is also a vivid depiction of hope. On the table are party hats. Streamers and balloons adorn the room.

The chair is empty. The celebration continues.

A THANKSGIVING STORY

November 24, 2016
In Everything Give Thanks - Thumbnail

On Tuesday, two days ago, I shared this story in a Thanksgiving message I gave at the Rotary Club of Spartanburg. My point was that our deepest expressions of gratitude may come in the midst of our greatest difficulties. This is one of my favorite Thanksgiving stories.

A pastor and his wife from eastern North Carolina suffered the loss of their young adult son.  One dark, rainy night, he was badly injured in an automobile accident.  At the emergency room the bleak diagnosis of severe trauma to the head prompted 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 for 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.

My prayer is that all of you will have a blessed Thanksgiving.

PRAYING FOR RAIN VII

November 20, 2016
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My friend and neighbor, Jimmy Tobias, flies an airplane for the South Carolina Forestry Commission.

He told me today that 20,000 acres of forest in Pickens County are ablaze.

“We need rain,” he said.

 

I am not a rain maker, but I do know who holds the wind and the rain in His hands.

Could I encourage you and your family to take a moment to pray for rain?

I plan to give some simple daily suggestions in this space.

They will come from various faith traditions.

For today, the prayer comes from a hymn written in 1883 by Daniel Whittle.

There shall be showers of blessing:
This is the promise of love;
There shall be seasons refreshing,
Sent from the Savior above.
Refrain:
Showers of blessing,
Showers of blessing we need:
Mercy-drops round us are falling,
But for the showers we plead.
There shall be showers of blessing,
Precious reviving again;
Over the hills and the valleys,
Sound of abundance of rain.
There shall be showers of blessing;
Send them upon us, O Lord;
Grant to us now a refreshing,
Come, and now honor Thy Word.
There shall be showers of blessing:
Oh, that today they might fall,
Now as to God we’re confessing,
Now as on Jesus we call!
There shall be showers of blessing,
If we but trust and obey;
There shall be seasons refreshing,
If we let God have His way.

THANKSGIVING CHILDREN

November 20, 2016
girl-thanksgiving-crafts

I was preaching a community Thanksgiving sermon at Highland Presbyterian Church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, two days before the holiday in 1978. As I closed my message, the minister of music stepped forward to announce the closing hymn. He placed on the pulpit a note written in large letters:

GO HOME NOW! CLARE IS IN LABOR!

I left the sanctuary through a back door, hurrying to our Pontiac station wagon. True to form, our children had always been full of surprises. As I hurriedly drove through the rainy night, I realized that the length of labor for Clare had been shorter with each birth. This child would probably arrive before morning.

Back in the days before 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 for 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.

“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.

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

We had gone through this 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 graciously provided a traditional dinner of turkey and all the fixings. That day remains our favorite Thanksgiving memory.

A Thanksgiving child gives a family 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 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. Here is an excerpt.

 

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.

*(Except, of course, Native Americans)

After we read the poem, we read an appropriate Psalm.

More importantly we give thanks, not only for the food on our table, but also for the family gathered around.

The truth is that all children are Thanksgiving children.

PRAYING FOR RAIN VI

November 19, 2016
islamic-prayer

My friend and neighbor, Jimmy Tobias, flies an airplane for the South Carolina Forestry Commission.

He told me Monday that 20,000 acres of forest in Pickens County are ablaze.

“We need rain,” he said.

 

I am not a rain maker, but I do know who holds the wind and the rain in His hands.

Could I encourage you and your family to take a moment to pray for rain?

I plan to give some simple daily suggestions in this space.

They will come from various faith traditions.

 

This prayer comes from the Islamic tradition. It may be prayed as a part of worship in the mosque or it may be offered privately.

“O Allah, shower upon us abundant rain, beneficial not harmful, swiftly and not delayed.
 O Allah, give water to Your slaves, and Your livestock, and spread Your mercy, and revive Your dead land.
O Allah, send us rain. O Allah, send us rain. O Allah, send us rain.
Amen.”

PRAYING FOR RAIN V

November 18, 2016
A religious orthodox Jew wearing a prayer shawl draped prays at the western wall. Jerusalem, Israel.

My friend and neighbor, Jimmy Tobias, flies an airplane for the South Carolina Forestry Commission.

He told me Monday that 20,000 acres of forest in Pickens County are ablaze.

“We need rain,” he said.

 

I am not a rain maker, but I do know who holds the wind and the rain in His hands.

Could I encourage you and your family to take a moment to pray for rain?

I plan to give some simple daily suggestions in this space.

They will come from various faith traditions.

 

The prayer for today, the Jewish Sabbath, is a beautiful prayer-poem, composed by Rabbi Elazar ha Kallir, who lived about 1300 years ago.
The first line begins with the word Af Bri, which is the name of the angel of rain:

Af Bri is the title of the prince of rain,
Who gathers the clouds and makes them drain,
Water to adorn with verdure each dale,
Be it not held back by debts left stale,
O’ shield the faithful who pray for rain…

May He send rain from the heavenly towers,
To soften the earth with its crystal showers,
You have named water the symbol of Your might,
All that breathe life in its drops to delight,
O’ revive those who praise Your powers of rain…

Amen.