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New Beginnings: A New Beginning

January 6, 2008
Sermon:  New Beginnings:  A New Beginning
Text:   II Corinthians 5:17


We begin today a new series of sermons entitled New Beginnings.  We are going to take a look at the lives of people God influenced and those who had new beginnings at various points in their lives.  I want to begin this series with a meditation that some of you have heard, a story about my new beginning that must be told every now and then. 

Our Scripture today is based on a verse I learned when I was in R.A.’s, II Corinthians 5:17:  “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ Jesus, that person is a new creation; former things pass away, and all things become new!”  It is a verse that marks new beginnings.

When I was two years old, my mother and father were members at First Baptist Church.  They were asked to leave that church, not because I was two, but because the church wanted them to start a mission at Camp Croft in one of the four military chapels located there.  Mom and Dad went to what is now Croft Baptist Church and started a little mission in that chapel. 

I remember those days well.  I remember the way Mom and Dad both served.  My mother was often in the nursery, caring for the children.  My dad always had a leadership role.  He led the singing sometimes.  At other times, he preached.  Often he served as a deacon, Sunday School teacher, or any other kind of lay leadership position in the church. 

There at Croft, I accepted Christ.  I was seven years old at the time.  That Sunday, I was holding down the Neely place on the back row.  Mom was in the nursery, and Dad was seated at the front of the church.  I do not remember the sermon, but I do remember the invitation. 

The pastor, after asking that every head be bowed and every eye be closed, said, “If you love Jesus, if you believe that Jesus loves you and you want to ask Jesus into your heart as your Savior, would you raise your hand?” 

My buddy George, sitting on the back row next to me, elbowed me and said, “If you raise your hand, I’ll raise mine.” 

I raised my hand, but George did not raise his. 

The pastor saw my hand but did not embarrass me by calling out my name or by asking me to join him at the front of the church.  After the service, he asked my parents if he could talk to me privately.  So on the next Wednesday afternoon, I talked with him in his small office there at church.  He asked questions I had already answered with my parents and asked if I wanted to pray to receive Christ.  I knew that I had already accepted Christ during my time of devotion with Mom and Dad, but I prayed with the pastor, again asking Jesus to come into my heart.  That night, I made my public profession of faith at Croft.  Soon afterwards, I was baptized.  I thought all was right with the world. 

About two years later, Croft planned a revival.  Members there, like many people, did not think it possible to have a revival unless the visiting preacher yelled at them.  The preacher who came to Croft all the way from Texas fulfilled every expectation anyone had about yelling.  We heard a full dose of yelling Sunday morning and a second dose that night.  With the room dark, the preacher showed a movie that he claimed was of hell.  I watched with terror mud bubbling up out of the ground and steam shooting into the air.  It did not occur to me at the time to ask where he got the film.  I realized later that this footage was probably taken in Yellowstone National Park. 

One scene in the movie that I will never forget was the lake of fire.  It contained dead bodies floating in the water.  He hollered, “If you don’t know for sure that Jesus is your Savior, this will be your fate!  You will burn in the lake of fire!”  For several years after that revival, every time I had a high fever, I had horrible nightmares about the lake of fire. 

I was so upset after watching that movie Sunday night that I could not wait to get down to the front of the church when the altar call was given.  Everybody else in the church was scared to death, too.  In fact, everybody in the congregation came forward except four people:  the pastor and his wife and my mom and dad.  I suppose that the preacher wanted that reaction.  Some people think that if you want to keep others out of hell, you have to scare it out of them. 

He scared me so badly that I insisted on being baptized again.  Of course, my dad tried to talk to me about my decision.  He said, “Kirk, you have already made a profession of faith.  You have already been baptized.  You do not have to do this.” 

I said, “But Daddy, George dared me to raise my hand.  I have to be sure.”  That lake of fire really terrified me.

By the time I was nine years old, I had been baptized twice at Croft Baptist Church.  As time went along, I began to feel resentment.  I felt that I had been manipulated and resolved that I was not going to let that exploitation happen to me again.  Of course, you see that preacher’s influence reflected in my ministry here.  I never drag out an invitation.  I feel that God will speak to you and tell you when it is time to make a decision.  I do not beg you and cajole you to come forward.  That revival experience caused me to build up a strong resistance to people that I thought were being manipulative in their preaching.

By the time I was in the ninth grade, I had become a Sunday School dropout.  I quit going to my Sunday School class but went to my grandfather’s instead.  He had had a stroke, and he wanted me to drive his automobile and take him to his Sunday school class.  Dr. Jim Turner, head of the religion department at Converse College, was his teacher.  For the next four years, I attended that class.  Dr. Turner basically taught the content of his religion course at Converse to this group of men.  He used the Bible, not a quarterly, to teach solid biblical teaching.  His lessons were very inspirational.  

The year I graduated from high school, I went to Africa and spent the entire summer there, visiting my aunt and uncle who were missionaries.  I saw something in Africa that was appalling to me: Apartheid, which is severe, harsh racial discrimination.  Growing up in the South, I had seen white restrooms and colored restrooms, as they were called.  I had seen white water fountains and colored water fountains, but I had never thought of racial discrimination as being a part of my life in Spartanburg until I got back from Africa.  I could then see what was happening around me.  I did not talk about that realization often, but I was concerned about it.  I can see now that God was preparing me. 

My grandfather was very sick that summer.  I spent a number of nights at the hospital, talking with him about dying.  I learned a lot about the experience of dying from him.  I found out that people die pretty much the way they live. 

Intent on being a doctor, a medical missionary, at that time, I started Furman University in the fall.  My plan was to major in biology and minor in chemistry.  Three weeks after I began college, my grandfather died.  His death was a severe grief experience for me. 

That first year at Furman, I avoided the BSU.  The large group that attended BSU were all fine people as far as I knew, but I did not want to be associated with the group.  I know that some of you will be appalled to learn that I never went to a meeting.  I had a resistance to that. 

On the very last day of school, with my Pontiac Tempest loaded to the hilt with all of my college possessions, I was headed home.  I decided to stop by the post office and check my mail one last time.  The director of the BSU happened to be in the post office.  He had hounded me all year to attend the meetings, and I guess he decided to make one last attempt that day.  Coming up behind me and taking me by the arm, he said, “Kirk, we are going to Ridgecrest this weekend for a BSU retreat.  We wish you would go with us.” 

Why I decided to go to the retreat I do not know.  I let Mom and Dad know my plan and told them not to expect me home for several days.  I did not want to ride the bus with the BSU, and I did not want to stay in the same house with the BSU.  Sometimes I prefer to be by myself.  I got permission to stay in a cabin owned by my uncle. 

Once at Ridgecrest, I arranged my supplies at the cabin, then went to the house where the BSU was staying.  The minute I met the retreat leader, I knew I did not want to listen to what he had to say.  I do not like to wash dishes, but I volunteered to clean the kitchen that night to avoid listening to him.  Forty people ate spaghetti for supper that night.  When I got through washing every dish, every pot, and every pan, I slipped out the backdoor and returned to the cabin where I was staying alone.

During the night, I had the most vivid life-changing experience I have ever had.  I really do not know exactly what happened.  To this day, I do not know whether I was awake or asleep.  As I remember that night, I was sitting up in bed when I saw the Lord Jesus Christ. 

He spoke to me, “Kirk, are you willing to do what I want you to do?” 

When I answered, “Yes, Lord,” I felt so much peace.  Then he was gone.  I do not whether I dreamed this encounter or if I was awake and it really happened.  Regardless, I made the commitment, “Yes, Lord, I will do what you want me to do.”  Throughout the night, I kept thinking, But I have no idea what Jesus wants me to do. 

The next morning, Sunday, I went to the service on the hill at Ridgecrest.  I do not remember the preacher or the sermon topic, but I do remember the invitation:  “If you are willing to do what Jesus wants you to do, would you come forward?” 

How could I not come forward for that invitation?  I had resisted all these years, but I had made the promise to Christ the night before.  I got up out of my seat in the balcony, came down the aisle, shook the preacher’s hand, and told him, “I am willing to do whatever Christ wants me to do, but I have no idea what that is.” 

He said, “We have counselors waiting for you.” 

I went out a side door right past every eager face waiting to counsel me.  I walked back up to the cabin, made two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and climbed to the top of Rattlesnake Mountain.  I could almost see Mount Mitchell off in the distance.  I watched the clouds blowing by in the sky and listened to the wind. 

I told God, “Lord, I don’t have any idea what you want me to do, but I am willing to do it.”  I stayed there on the mountain for quite awhile but heard not one mumbling word. 

I waited until I was sure the BSU had gotten on the bus and left the camp.  Then I came down the mountain and spent a peaceful night in the cabin.   Early the next morning, I drove to Spartanburg.  When I walked into our kitchen, Gertrude Kelly, a woman who worked for my mother on Mondays, was standing there.  She turned to me and said, “Kirk, we want to have a Bible school at our church, but we ain’t got no preacher.  Would you come do Bible school for us?” 

White college students did not do Bible school in black churches in Spartanburg, South Carolina, in 1963.  The next week, I led Bible school each day at Allen Chapel United Methodist Church.  The first day, about fifty kids attended.  I played my guitar, told every Scout story and every Bible story I knew, and played all the Scout games I could remember. 

Every day, more and more kids came.  By the end of the week, 125 kids had attended.  During the week, I recruited many adults to help.  I was the only white person there. 

The last day, a big car pulled up in the churchyard.  A large man in a three-piece suit got out and walked over to me.  He said, “Reverend Neely…”  I looked around to see whom he was addressing.  That was the first time I had ever been called “Reverend.”  He continued, “We want to have a Bible school at our church, too.  Would you come and do one for us?” 

Two weeks later, I was leading Bible school at Chestnut Ridge United Methodist Church.  Two or three weeks after that, I was leading Bible school at another church on Highway 56. 

When I returned to Furman in the fall, I ran into the president of the BSU right after I had registered for classes.  She asked, “What happened to you?  The dishes were so clean!  We saw you walk down from the balcony and come forward Sunday morning.  We looked for you afterwards, but no one could find you.  What happened?”

I explained, “I just had a few things I needed to work out.”

“I’m so glad I ran into you!  We have a big problem, and we need your help.  The Reedy River Baptist Association wants us to lead a backyard Bible club in a housing project.  We are scared to death.”

I asked, “When do they want you to have this club?”

“Tuesday afternoons.”

I looked at my course schedule and saw that I had biology and chemistry labs on Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday.  Nothing had been scheduled on Tuesdays, so I told her I would help.  I knew what to do.  Every Tuesday afternoon, I helped the BSU lead a backyard Bible club in a housing project in Greenville. 

I soon discovered that I did not have to know God’s entire plan for me.  I just had to be willing to do His will.  When you tell God that you are willing to do what He wants you to do, He will show you.  He may not show you the whole plan at once, but He will show you some of it.

I wanted to be a medical missionary, so I applied to medical school after graduating from Furman.  I learned that I could not be accepted because the state legislature had instructed the school not to accept anyone who did not plan to practice medicine in South Carolina.  This was the height of the Viet Nam war.  I was distraught, heart-broken, in fact. 

My religion professor, Dr. Theron Price, advised me to attend seminary for a year since I planned to be a medical missionary.

I did not much want to go, but if I wanted to go to the mission field, I needed to go.  I signed up for all academic courses: Greek, Hebrew, New Testament, Old Testament, biblical archeology.  I took none of the classes about running Sunday School or preaching sermons.  I just wanted to be a medical missionary. 

When I discovered that I had to do fieldwork, I delayed this requirement as long as possible.  Other students were working in churches and places crawling with preacher boys.  I just did not see myself as one of them.  I stood in the middle of seminary village one night, shook my fist at heaven, and declared, “I will never be a preacher boy!”  I have deleted the expletive I used when I addressed the Almighty.

On the day of registration for classes, Dr. Wayne Oates, the professor working the line, asked, “Mr. Neely, you do not want to be here, do you?”

I answered, “No sir, Dr. Oates.  I don’t want to be here at all.”

“Well, we are sending you to a hospital to work as a chaplain for your fieldwork.”

I finally accepted the fact that I was required to do fieldwork and found some comfort knowing that maybe working as a hospital chaplain would give me an opportunity to meet some doctors who could help me get in medical school.

I was assigned to Hazelwood Tuberculosis Hospital, where very patient had either tuberculosis or black lung disease from working in the coal mines of Kentucky.  I just went through the motions until the day I walked into a ward containing three Baptist men and one Roman Catholic.  I went to each bed, making a perfunctory visit to the three Baptists.  Then I walked over to the little Roman Catholic man, Mr. Droder, who was eaten up with tuberculosis.  He was so frail, really just skin and bones.  With a ring of dried saliva around his mouth, he used about all the breath he had and whispered, “Sir, what is your mission?”  His question stunned me.  I talked with him a bit, had a quick prayer, and left the hospital.  

That afternoon, I kept thinking about Mr. Droder’s question.  I picked up a book I had been assigned to read, The Minister and the Care of Souls by Daniel Day Williams.  I read a statement Williams made that made a lasting impression on me.  He said that it is in the actual practice of ministry that we meet the living Christ.  When we minister, we encounter Christ in our lives.  “Inasmuch as you have done it unto the one of the least of these, you have done it unto Christ” (Matthew 25:40). 

I felt compelled to talk with Mr. Droder again, so I drove all the way back across the county to the hospital.  When I walked by the nurses’ station, one of the nurses who knew I had been in earlier that day asked, “What are you doing back here?”

When I told her that I had returned to see Mr. Droder, she said, “You’re an hour too late.  He died about an hour ago.”

Mr. Droder’s question, “Sir, what is your mission?” became my call to the Christian ministry.  His question is the reason I am a pastor. 

Regardless of the number of times you shake your fist at heaven, regardless of your resistance, regardless of tour plans for your life, you must listen to God’s plan, one that is better than our own.  “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; former things pass away, and all things become new!”  Becoming a new creation has happened for me so many times.  It happened when I came to this church as pastor.  It will happen to you, too.  Sometimes in unexpected ways, I notice that when God has something to say to me, He almost asks a question.  He knows that I am wired to ask many questions, so He questions me.  I have learned that I need to pay attention.  Most of the time I do.

A new beginning does not just happen to Kirk.  A new beginning happens to you.  You have told me your stories.  God wants to do something new in every Christian’s life this new year.  I wish I could tell you what that is.  I do not even know what it is for me.  We must believe that God has a plan and pay attention to God’s plan.  On this day, we must make a commitment to begin again.

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