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THE PIANO MAN

August 26, 2016
PIANO MAN

I attended the meeting of the Rotary Club of Spartanburg. Being a member of the group, I enjoy good friends, good food, and consistently good programs. Dave Zabriskie, a local banker who is also a Rotarian, usually plays a grand piano while the rest of us enjoy a delicious meal.  As I ate and talked with friends seated at the table with me, I noticed that Dave was playing a familiar tune. It was written and recorded by Billy Joel. The song, “Piano Man,” brought to mind a story I remembered from nearly ten years earlier.

On April 7, 2005, an unidentified man was picked up by police as he was wandering the streets in Kent, in England. Dressed in a suit and tie, he was soaking wet. He was unresponsive to their questions, remaining silent. The police took him to Medway Maritime Hospital.

There, he was presented a pen and paper by the hospital staff in the hope he would write his name. Instead, he drew a detailed sketch of a grand piano. When they took him to a piano, he played music of various types ranging from classical music by Tchaikovsky to pop tunes by The Beatles. He played for four hours.

He was admitted to the psychiatric unit and dubbed the Piano Man by the hospital staff.

The name given the troubled man came from the lyrics of the song by Billy Joel.

Sing us a song, you’re the piano man.
Sing us a song tonight.
Well, we’re all in the mood for a melody,
And you’ve got us feeling alright.

The Steinway Company has brought some of the world’s great pianists to America.  Vladimir Horowitz, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Arthur Rubinstein, and Jan Paderewski are among the most famous.  Today, Steinway artists include Van Cliburn and Billy Joel.    The Steinway Company wants their pianos to be played.  Any visitor to Steinway Hall in New York City may sit down to play.

Wishing to encourage her young son’s interest in the piano, a mother took her boy to a Paderewski concert at Steinway Hall.  After they were seated, the mother spotted a friend in the audience and walked down the aisle to greet her. Seizing the opportunity to explore the concert hall, the young boy left his seat and made his way through a stage door.
The houselights dimmed. The concert was about to begin. The mother returned to her seat and discovered that her child was missing. The stage curtains parted. Spotlights focused on the impressive Steinway Grand Piano.

Horrified, the mother saw her son sitting at the keyboard, innocently picking out “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.”

At that moment, Paderewski made his sweeping entrance. Quickly moving to the piano, he whispered in the boy’s ear, “Don’t quit. Keep playing.”
Then leaning over, the master pianist reached down with his left hand and began filling in a bass part to the boy’s simple tune. Soon his right arm reached around to the other side of the child as he added a running treble counterpoint.  Together, the old master and the young boy transformed an awkward situation into a creative experience. The audience was mesmerized.

It is an important message of hope, a word of encouragement for every person in a difficult circumstance.

“Don’t quit. Keep at it. You are not alone.”

ICE COLD WATERMELON

August 21, 2016
WATERMELON II

Last week Clare and I took an afternoon to cruise the blue line highways of the Upstate. We made a special effort to find good homegrown tomatoes. We stopped at several roadside stands and found delicious heirloom tomatoes at several of our favorite places. We also found a few figs, an abundance of late summer peaches, and early fall apples. At every stand we saw watermelons. In one place they were advertised as ice cold.

My mother was allergic to watermelon. Even a small spill of the sticky pink juice on her kitchen counter caused her to break out in hives, so we never had watermelons in our home. You no doubt have heard the wise old saying, “If Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.” In our family that was the gospel truth.

As far as I know it is next to impossible to eat watermelon without the juice running down your chin and off your elbows. If we had watermelon at all it was in the backyard where everything contaminated by watermelon drippings could be washed away with the garden hose.

My brothers and sisters and I were, of course, exposed to watermelon in other circumstances. Most of our cousins enjoyed the summertime fruit and looked forward to a big wedge of watermelon with the same anticipation as a cone of homemade peach ice cream.

Elaine was one of my classmates at Cooperative Elementary School. Her birthday was right after the beginning of the new school year. She invited every student in Mrs. Pearl Fairbetter’s fourth-grade class to her party.

Even though I was scared of girls, Mama said I had to go to Elaine’s party. She was our neighbor. Not going to her party would be rude. Reluctantly, I went. There were thirteen girls there. I was the only boy who attended.

I guess Elaine’s daddy felt sorry for me. He told me I could help him cut the watermelon. That was just fine with me. I liked watermelon, and I didn’t like girls. Turns out the girls were too prissy to eat watermelon. Elaine’s daddy said I would have to eat the whole thing by myself. I ate as much as I could. I got as sick as a dog. I have never liked watermelon since that day.

Summer is watermelon time. Roadside produce stands have bright green melons prominently displayed, tempting passersby to stop. Watermelon season extends well into September.

Charles Fredric Andrus, a horticulturist at the United States Department of Agriculture Vegetable Breeding Laboratory in Charleston, South Carolina, set out to produce a watermelon resistant to disease and wilt. The result was the Charleston Gray. Its oblong shape and hard rind made it easy to stack and ship. Its adaptability meant it could be grown over a wide geographical area. It produced high yields and was impervious to the most serious watermelon diseases.

Today, farmers in approximately 44 states in the U.S. grow watermelon commercially. Almost all varieties have some Charleston Gray in their lineage.

Carolina Cross, a variety named for the state, has green skin and red flesh. About 90 days from the planting of seeds, fruit between 65 and 150 pounds is ready to harvest. Carolina Cross is the variety of watermelon that produced the current world record weighing 262 pounds. It was grown in 1990 by Bill Carson of Arrington, Tennessee.

A cold slice of watermelon on a muggy summer day hits the spot. It is not uncommon for such an occasion to be followed by a seed spitting contest. There are two categories in seed spitting proficiency – distance and accuracy.

I remember a hike to Dead Horse Canyon with several of my buddies. The garden behind our house included a watermelon patch. We picked one medium sized fruit that was ripe. We had to cross a creek on the way to the Canyon. In order to get the melon cool, we floated it in the creek. One of the guys thought it should be submerged all the way under water. Where a wild cherry tree grew on the creek bank, we pried loose a root and pinned the watermelon under the root beneath the surface of the water.

After a hot messy dirt clod flight in Dead Horse Canyon, we stopped by the creek to enjoy our cool watermelon. Something had eaten holes all through the ripe red fruit. Crawdads were crawling around inside the tunnels made through the flesh. My best guess is that a muskrat had his fill of our watermelon leaving the rest to the crustacean critters. We left it floating in the creek.

Watermelon is as nutritious as it is delicious. Though it is 92% water, the red flesh is packed with vitamins and minerals. The deep red varieties of watermelon are loaded with lycopene, an anti-oxidant that protects the heart and prostate, and promotes skin health.

Citrulline is among the phyto-nutrients found in watermelon. It has the ability to relax blood vessels, much like Viagra does. It can help those who need increased blood flow to treat angina, high blood pressure, and other cardiovascular problems.

Red juice running down his chin, a lad took the last few bites of a piece of watermelon.

“Save me the rind!” his friend begged.

“Ain’t gonna’ be no rind!”

The inner rind of the watermelon, usually a light green or white color, is commonly pickled in the South. The rind is edible, has a unique flavor, and contains many nutrients. Sometimes used as a vegetable, the rind can be stir-fried or stewed, as well as pickled.

Recipe books have an interesting array of serving ideas. Watermelon salsa is a summer garnish. A carved watermelon can become a basket for fruit salad or centerpiece for a party. The sweet red juice can be made into watermelon wine.

Two fellows, both unsuccessful in business, were out of work. It was early summer and they needed to find a way to make some money.

“Let’s sell watermelons,” one suggested. “I have a pickup truck. We can go to Charleston and buy a load of early watermelons. Then we can haul them back up to Spartanburg and sell them before the grocery stores have any.”

“Great idea!” his friend said. “I have a cousin in Charleston who can tell us where to buy them.”

Off to the Lowcountry they went. They bought a truckload of watermelons at a bargain – two for a dollar.

Back in the Upstate, they sold every watermelon at fifty cents apiece.

When they tallied up, one said to the other. “Not counting the cost of gasoline, we broke exactly even.”

After a thoughtful pause his business partner responded, “You know what? We’ve got to get a bigger truck.”

THE GRACE OF A SUMMER BREEZE

August 14, 2016
Wind Chimes ii

Sooner or later, wind becomes a part of every beach vacation. With the intense heat of this summer an ocean breeze becomes a welcome guest to those sweltering from the August sun. Of course, wind can also become a ferocious intruder especially when driven ashore by the swirling bands of a tropical storm. Those times are the exceptions. More often the late afternoon along the coast give rise to inviting, refreshing air currents moving inland. Gnats and mosquitoes disappear. A walk ankle deep in the surf is a pleasant activity after supper.

At the beach our grandchildren take great delight in playing on the beach with an ocean breeze. To blow soap bubbles, to toss a Frisbee, to run with a pin wheel, or to fly a kite is so much fun.

Wind chimes are a favorite at our home.  Clare’s father, who made the first ones I ever saw, fashioned them from conduit pipe and small gauge chain.  The entire assembly was fastened to a piece of square wood with screw eyes and S-hooks.  Though he died in 1984, whenever a breeze blows we still enjoy the sound of those chimes he created.

When we pack for our vacation at Pawleys Island, I gather up the wind chimes that have been damaged throughout the year. During the first few days at the coast I repair those broken wind chimes, sometime using things I find on the beach as substitute parts – an interesting piece of driftwood, a polished fragment of colored glass, or an unusual remnant of a seashell. As the chimes are mended, I hang them on the porch of the beach house and bring them back to Spartanburg at the end of our stay.

Earlier this summer, friends visited our garden. The plants have held their own against the blistering heat, but the yard was less presentable than I would have wished. We were blessed with a gentle breeze that afternoon, prompting one of the guests to ask about our wind chimes. I shared stories about some of the chimes, particularly the ones I had refurbished. I pointed out my favorite, the one tuned to the first few notes of “Amazing Grace.”

Several years ago on a trip to the South Carolina coast, Clare and I stopped for breakfast at a Cracker Barrel, a familiar landmark along interstate highways. At that time tables for two in the non-smoking section were in high demand, so we added our names to the waiting list. Fortunately, this establishment offers two diversions while waiting to be seated.  An array of rocking chairs is located on the front porch for customers who prefer to sit outside while waiting. Those rocking chairs, by the way, are for sale. The alternative allows patrons to make their way through a maze of merchandise on display inside the building.  As Clare and I waited for an available table, we chose to browse through the restaurant’s goods. I discovered a rack of wind chimes.

Since that first encounter with my father-in-law’s homemade chimes, the art of making wind chimes has gone high-tech. Chimes have been tuned to sound like Gregorian chants or eastern temple bells. They have been tuned to the opening notes of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.  There on the rack at Cracker Barrel I found a wind chime tuned to the notes of “Amazing Grace.”

After seeing the chime and hearing its distinctive tone, Clare suggested that we buy several.

We gave one set to my sister and brother-in-law who live in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. This brother-in-law, Terry, later gave us a report: “If I sit on my screened porch with a cup of coffee and listen carefully while a gentle breeze is blowing, I really can hear a suggestion of ‘Amazing Grace.’”  He smiled and continued, “The other night during a big storm, those wind chimes rang like crazy.  Twenty-five people in our neighborhood came to our door looking for the revival meeting.”

Many people know that John Newton wrote “Amazing Grace.” His father was a sea captain, and John became a sailor as a teenager.  By the time he was twenty years old, he had become the captain of his own slave ship.  For nine years, he bought and transported Africans in the slave trade.

On March 21, 1748, in the midst of a perilous storm, Newton prayed to God for deliverance. That experience greatly changed his life. John Newton left the sea and the slave trade and eventually entered the ministry.  His memory of that stormy night at sea later led him to pen the lyrics of the hymn “Amazing Grace.” Newton’s words were put to a tune he had heard sung by slaves imprisoned in the cargo hold of his ship.

In 1990, a television documentary produced for the Public Broadcasting System traced the story of John Newton’s hymn. Narrated by Bill Moyers, the ninety-minute film became one of PBS’ highest-rated programs ever.

For generations “Amazing Grace” has been sung in both rural churches and in city cathedrals. Shape note singers in Southern revivals have harmonized it. Native American flutes have played it, and the Harlem Boys Choir has performed it. Cherokee Indians sang it on the Trail of Tears, and Johnny Cash included the hymn in nearly all of his prison performances. The words never failed to move hardened criminals to tears.

In 1970, folksinger Judy Collins released her version of the song.  Her clear, beautiful voice carried the song to the top of the pop music charts.   Judy Collins credits the song with helping her overcome her own problems with alcohol.

At the conclusion of his documentary, Bill Moyers recounts an event that occurred on June 11, 1988. At a concert in Wembley Stadium in London, England, various musical groups, mostly rock bands, gathered in celebration of the end of apartheid in South Africa.  For twelve hours, rock bands groups like Guns n’ Roses blasted away, causing the crowd to grow louder and rowdier as the day progressed.

The promoters of the event had asked Jessye Norman, a world-renowned opera singer, to perform the final number. Norman grew up singing gospel music at Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Augusta, Georgia, long before her professional musical career began.   A single spotlight followed this stately African-American woman onto the stage.  Alone, with no musical accompaniment, Jessye Norman began singing a capella.

Amazing grace!  How sweet the sound,

That saved a wretch like me!

I once was lost, but now am found,

Was blind, but now I see.

Hearing these words, seventy thousand people fell silent. Jessye Norman began the second verse:

’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,

And grace my fears relieved;”

By the end of the verse, the crowd was entranced.   As she began the third verse, several thousand people were singing with her.

’Tis grace hath bro’t me safe thus far,

And grace will lead me home.”

Remembering words learned in the past, the crowd was transformed into a congregation as they sang the final verse.

“When we’ve been there ten thousand years,

Bright shining as the sun,

We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise

Than when we first begun.”

Jessye Norman later revealed that she had felt an unseen power descend on Wembley Stadium that night.

Whether “Amazing Grace” is played by a highlander on Scottish bagpipes or by Freddie Vanderford on a blues harmonica, whether sung by the untrained voice of a cotton mill worker or by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, whether played on a pipe organ in a grand cathedral or on wind chimes in a summer breeze, the familiar old hymn is a reminder of God’s love. Wind chimes or not, a summer breeze is a gentle reminder of that gift of grace.

When grace enters our lives, restless hearts fall silent. For those who pause to pay attention, there is a peaceful moment when our souls are restored.

Here is “Amazing Grace” in a compilation of five languages -Inuit, French, Russian, Cherokee, German, Spanish, and English. Scottish bagpipes are included near the end.

REFLECTION FOR TODAY: The Simple Truth

August 12, 2016
Karl Barth

The venerable Swiss theologian, Karl Barth, was the author of a massive, thirteen-volume work, Church Dogmatics.  Like so many other theologians, Dr. Barth’s wordiness sometimes interfered with clarity.  Dr. Carlyle Marney, commenting on Barth’s voluminous theological work, quipped; “Nobody knows that much about God.”

When Barth discussed the problem of evil, he presented it in cosmic terms.

When I was named a Merrill Fellow at Harvard Divinity School, I was selected because I was a pastor. My role was to assist the faculty by bringing a practical, down-to-earth perspective to the rarified atmosphere of academic studies.

Professor Art McGill invited me to attend his Systematic Theology lectures.   I listened as he explained the fine points of Barth’s idea of cosmic evil. The class of bright students had that deer-in-the-headlights look as they struggled to understand the concept.

Finally, Professor McGill turned to me as a drowning swimmer looks for a lifeguard. “Pastor Neely, can you help us understand what Barth means by cosmic evil?”

I, too, had difficulty understanding Barth, and I certainly was not qualified to teach the theology of the esteemed professor from Switzerland.

As is often the case, all that I could think to do was to tell a story.

The summer after my junior year in high school, I spent several weeks putting up ceiling tile in a new showroom at the family lumberyard.  I was helping an old carpenter.  The ceiling was stripped with 1 x 4 boards.  The ceiling tile had to be stapled to the wooden strips.  In order to do the job, scaffolding was put in place.  The aging carpenter and I had to stretch out on our backs atop a platform within arm’s reach of the ceiling.

During the three or four weeks that it took to complete the job, I watched this elderly man wrestle with his addiction to alcohol.  He started his day with a drink from a bottle that he kept stashed behind the seat of his pickup truck.  After about an hour’s work, his hands were shaking so badly that he had to climb down from the scaffolding to get another drink.

Throughout the day, every day, he returned to the bottle.  By late afternoon, the smell of alcohol exuded from every pore of his body.  His clothing, soaked with sweat, reeked of the sickening sweet smell.  Through most of the time that we worked together, I said nothing.

Several weeks later, our project was almost complete. After his last drink of a long workday, the old carpenter climbed back up the scaffolding.  I looked over at him and spoke the obvious, “That bottle really has a hold on you, doesn’t it?”

He turned his head, looking at me with glassy gray eyes, “I tell you what, good buddy, if there ain’t no devil, there’s somebody doin’ his work!”

The lumberyard tale was a simple illustration of the concept of cosmic evil.  Maybe even Dr. Barth would have appreciated the story.  For all of his complicated discussion of Christian theology, his heart’s desire was to make it simple to understand Christianity.

Military officers learn that, as they train their troops, they must remember the acrostic KISS – Keep It Simple, Stupid.  This, too, is a cardinal rule for Christian teachers, whether parents, grandparents, Sunday school teachers, or pastors.  We must keep it simple.

One reason Jesus taught in parables was to make his message accessible.   Simplicity is the most effective way to teach the gospel truth.

On a visit to America, Karl Barth was lecturing at Union Theological Seminary, in Richmond, Virginia.  At the end of a lengthy and erudite discussion of Christocentric theology, Dr. Barth paused for questions.  A woman in the audience who was not a theologian asked in exasperation, “Dr. Barth, would you please tell me what you believe in language that I can understand?”

The white-headed Dr. Barth took a long puff on his pipe and exhaled.  With smoke billowing around his face, he thought for a moment and said, “If I were to summarize all of my theology in one simple sentence, I would say, ‘Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.’”

Thar is the simple Gospel truth.

Here it is in a familiar song sung by children.

A MIRACLE OF SEAGULLS

August 7, 2016
Seagulls

On a recent sunny Monday afternoon I passed the pond at Milliken headquarters. Families with small children were flying kites in the summer breeze. Teenagers were sailing a Frisbee in a nearby field, and others were gathering at the pond to feed the ducks. The sky above the pond was filled with what seemed to be a hundred flapping seagulls, looting the scraps of bread intended for the ducks.

I have often seen seagulls at our large impoundments – Lake Murray, Lake Hartwell, and Lake Jocassee. I thought it odd, however, that gulls would congregate in such numbers above a small pond like the one at Milliken.

The seagull is the state bird of Utah. Why would a state in the Rocky Mountain West choose a coastal bird as its state fowl?

In 1848, after Brigham Young had led the first Latter-day Saints into what is now Salt Lake City, Utah, the pioneers experienced a mild winter. The Mormon settlers seemed destined to reap an abundant harvest.

In late May though, swarms of insects appeared and threatened to decimate the crops. Mormon journal writers described this disaster in Biblical terms: a plague of locusts. These invading hordes of insects, which resembled grasshoppers, were related to the katydid family. They came to be known as Mormon crickets.

On June 9, 1848, apparently attracted by the Great Salt Lake, legions of seagulls appeared. The birds feasted on the insects, eliminating the encroaching threat.

To this day, the event is known as the miracle of the seagulls. According to Mormon tradition, the gulls are credited for saving the Latter-day Saints’ first harvest in Utah. Church leaders recounted the story from their pulpits. To commemorate the birds’ aid, the Mormons erected the Seagull Monument in front of the Salt Lake Assembly Hall on Temple Square. Read more…

REFLECTION FOR TODAY: The Prayer of Saint Francis

August 6, 2016
St. Francis of Assisi

This continues series of columns begun on August 1, 2016.

I have been invited, challenged, and encouraged to make some comment about the situation in our world, our country, and our national politics. I have thought and prayed about how best to respond.

I have decided to post through my blog some of the inspirational words that strike me as important. These will be wisdom, poems, prayers, scriptures, and hymns that I come to in my own life of devotion. Some will be clearly religious. Others will seem secular. Some are profound; others mundane. All I believe are worth our time. I suggest reading them, pausing to reflect upon them, and then pondering the meaning throughout the day.

These postings are not intended to prompt debate. They are offered to encourage thoughtful, prayerful reflection. Please keep in mind that I have been a Christian pastor for more than fifty years. You will find a distinct Christian influence in these offerings. That is not intended to exclude anyone. I believe that those of you from other faith groups will find wisdom here that can be translated into your own traditional framework.

Prayer of Saint Francis, also known as the Peace Prayer, is a widely cherished Christian prayer. Though usually attributed to the 13th-century Saint Francis of Assisi, the prayer in its present form cannot be traced back further than 1912, when it was printed in Paris in French on the reverse of a card bearing the image of St. Francis. Read more…

REFLECTION FOR TODAY: Once to Every Man and Nation

August 5, 2016
Once to Every Man and Nation

This continues series of columns begun on August 1, 2016.

I have been invited, challenged, and encouraged to make some comment about the situation in our world, our country, and our national politics. I have thought and prayed about how best to respond.

I have decided to post through my blog some of the inspirational words that strike me as important. These will be wisdom, poems, prayers, scriptures, and hymns that I come to in my own life of devotion. Some will be clearly religious. Others will seem secular. Some are profound; others mundane. All I believe are worth our time. I suggest reading them, pausing to reflect upon them, and then pondering the meaning throughout the day.

These postings are not intended to prompt debate. They are offered to encourage thoughtful, prayerful reflection. Please keep in mind that I have been a Christian pastor for more than fifty years. You will find a distinct Christian influence in these offerings. That is not intended to exclude anyone. I believe that those of you from other faith groups will find wisdom here that can be translated into your own traditional framework. Read more…

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