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Faith Walk: The Evidence of Faith

April 10, 2011
Sermon:  Faith Walk:  The Evidence of Faith
Text:  James 2:14-17


I want to call your attention to one passage in the book of James, a book written by James, the brother of Jesus.  This little book is sometimes called the “Proverbs of the New Testament.”  James writes:  “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds?”  James goes on to say that faith without works is dead.  Martin Luther, I think, misunderstood this book.  Luther called it a “might strawy epistle” because his emphasis was on the importance of faith.  I do not believe James’ point of view is different.  He is saying that a person of faith wants to respond, that a person’s beliefs and behavior are connected.  Faith without works is dead.  We find a similar concept in the first letter of John.  I John 4:20 says, “How can you say you love God whom you have not seen if you do not love your brother whom you have seen?”  In other words, our faith translates into the way we live our lives, the way we behave.

When I announced this series of sermons, Faith Walk, and when I planned for this particular sermon, “The Evidence of Faith,” of course I had no way of knowing what events would be unfolding in my own life.

Last Sunday morning, I thought that my father would live for another two weeks.  We had been told that he had about fourteen days.  After the morning services, I received an urgent call from Hospice House, saying to come immediately.  While on my way, a brother-in-law sent a text message that read, “Kirk, please hurry.”  I also received a phone call from my sister in Charleston, saying, “Kirk, you have to get out there right away.”

When I arrived at Hospice House, my dad’s pulse rate was undetectable.  His blood pressure was very low, and his shallow breathing was about his only detectable vital sign.  We thought that he would die almost immediately, but this man with so much spunk actually lived until the late afternoon.  He died very peacefully.  It is just one more example that we never know when death will come.

I want to thank all of you for your cards and your many expressions of kindness.  Thank you for the wonderful potato salad!  I have not had such good potato salad since my grandmother died.  I say that you can get kicked out of the Baptist church for six of the seven deadly sins.  Gluttony is the one sin that is encouraged.  This has been a good week for gluttony.  I especially appreciate those of you who expressed your condolences on Thursday night and those who came to the service on Friday.  Thank you, choir and musicians.  You were so much a part of that service. Thank you for everything you have done.

I cannot talk about the evidence of faith without talking about my dad, especially today, two days after his funeral.  I promise you that I will not belabor his death and hit you with this repeatedly, but today I hope you will grant me this special privilege of talking about my father.  In my mind,

Dad’s life is the perfect illustration of what it means to live by faith and to see the evidence of faith in human life.

Born on November 14, 1920, Dad was the fourth of nine children.  He was often teased about the fact that he was the only one born in a hospital.  The day he came home from Greenville Hospital, my grandfather and one of his brothers went to the Furman-Clemson football game.  It was one of the few times in history that Furman beat Clemson. The family should have known that Dad’s life was going to be great when it started with Furman’s win over Clemson.

The family lived in Greenville on Augusta Road, which was made of dirt at the time.  My grandfather and a woman named Maybelle Hatch started Augusta Road Baptist Church because they felt that a Baptist church should be in their community.  That church has a long history, and it is one of the finer churches in Greenville.  My Uncle Tom was the first convert to that church.

When Dad was four years old, my grandfather – Pappy, as I knew him – moved the family to Spartanburg to start a lumber business.  One of his brothers-in-law owned one of the seven lumberyards in Greenville, and my grandfather did not want to go into competition with him.  At that time, Spartanburg had only three lumberyards.  The family lived on Edwards Avenue, and their good friends were the Abernathys.  They started the lumber business on East Henry Street.

In time, Pappy built a large two-story house on Greenville Highway, which was nothing but a dirt road past his house.  The family really took to Spartanburg very well, and they became members at First Baptist Church.

My dad used the words of John Wesley to describe what happened to him during a sermon preached by Dr. William Ball:  “When I was ten years old, I listened to the sermon.  My heart became strangely warmed.  I turned to my mother and said, ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus.’  She said, ‘Kirk, if you’re ready to accept Jesus, go ahead and tell the preacher.’  When the invitation was given, I went forward and accepted Christ.”

He was baptized soon after that at First Baptist Church.  The candidates, wearing robes, came up the stairs of a platform where the baptistery was located.  They left the platform wringing wet.  Dad said, “I went down the platform and out into a classroom.  Mr. H.T. Littlejohn, Blanche Giles’ father, put me in a washtub and helped me dry off and change clothes.  Mr. Littlejohn was special to me from that day forward.”  The Littlejohn and Neely families have always had a close connection.

When the Depression hit, my grandfather tried to save his lumberyard business.  Pappy kept mortgaging his home, putting money into the business.  In time, he lost both the lumberyard and his home.  My dad was twelve years of age at that time.  The family, which included nine children, moved to Cedar Springs and lived in a little Victorian house across from the School for the Deaf and Blind.  That house is still standing there at the entrance of Mountainview Nursing Home.

My grandfather bought a mule, a cow, and a goat that provided them with milk, cream, and butter.  They planted a large garden where they grew almost everything they ate.  They grew corn and wheat, which they took to the gristmill and swapped for flour and grits.  They could not grow sugar cane, so they bought that.  My grandfather wanted to share food with as many hungry people as possible.  Trains that came by the house often carried many empty boxcars filled with hobos.  Apparently, the hobos marked the home of my grandfather and grandmother.  A constant stream of hungry people came to the back door.  My grandmother always gave them food to eat.  Sometimes it was nothing but a cold sweet potato.

My grandparents grew sweet potatoes and raised turkeys, which they sold to the School for the Deaf and Blind.  The legend is that my grandmother could fix sweet potatoes three different ways for the same meal.  She fixed sweet potato bread, sweet potato muffins, sweet potato pie, sweet potato casserole with marshmallows, baked sweet potatoes, candied sweet potatoes, on and on.  Sweet potatoes are highly nutritious.  You can feed a lot of kids on sweet potatoes.  One of my uncles would not eat another one after the Depression.

Family members often drove from the Low Country to get a box of groceries from my grandparents’ farm.  The government provided no assistance programs, no social security.  My dad, who grew up in that difficult time, remembered well the need for people to take care of each other.  This family tried its best to do that.

Roosevelt came along and started some programs, one of which was the C.C.C.  Dad remembered that the main job of that organization was to plant a particular crop – kudzu – all over the South.  That sounds like a government program, doesn’t it?

In time, my grandfather was able to buy back his lumberyard – complete with his wagons, horses, and inventory – for $500.  The business had gone on the auction block, but nobody wanted to purchase it.  He made a very slow, limping start in building up the business.  The family then moved out to a place called Disputana.   Years earlier, two men had not been able to agree on the name for the area.  Each had wanted to name the area after his wife.  They had a dispute, thus the name Disputana.

One day my grandfather was talking with Lawton Moore, one of my grandmother’s cousins and the principal of a school there.  My grandfather said, “Lawton, I don’t like the idea of living in a place called Disputana.”

Moore said, “Mr. Neely, I don’t either.”

“What would happen if you got up one morning and saw a new sign over the schoolhouse?”

“I wouldn’t do anything about it, and I wouldn’t tell anyone you put it there.”

Looking back toward Spartanburg, they decided to call the place Westview.

About three days later, a sign appeared over the schoolhouse that read Westview School.  From that point on, the area was known as Westview.

The family eventually moved to Union Road where my grandfather bought a tract of land.  He built a lumber shed on one end and his house on the other end.  Clare and I now live in that house, which was built in 1937.  My study is my dad’s bedroom when he was seventeen years old.

The years surrounding World War II offered another difficult time.  My Uncle Tom served as a missionary in South America.  My Uncle Buzz served in the Navy.  He was in the Normandy Invasion.  My Uncle Asbury flew bombing raids over German.  He was actually shot down over Switzerland.  Uncle David, who flew as a pilot over Germany, was shot down and became a prisoner of war.  My Uncle Robert, my mother’s brother, served in the infantry.  He, too, was taken as a POW and treated very harshly.  My Uncle Bill, who joined the Navy and went to the Pacific theater, had a kidney problem.  He used another fellow’s specimen to sneak his way into the armed forces.  I do not want to be more graphic than that.  Uncle Bill also used another fellow’s specimen to get out of the armed forces.

My dad also wanted to serve his country.  He tried to enlist in the Army, the Navy, the Army Air Corps, and the Marine Corps.  None of them would accept him because he had a bad knee, which he hurt while swimming one day in the North Pacolet River.  In addition, he had poor eyesight.  My dad hated the medley we sometimes sing about the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines.  It was hard for him to see others who had served the country when he was rejected.  Dad wanted so badly to help this country that he took a civilian job doing the laundry at Camp Croft.  Finally, my grandfather asked him to help with the lumberyard business.

My grandparents had a little room in that house on Union Road that they called Mammy’s Parlor.  Every night, they sat in that room and read the Bible together.  They got down on their knees and prayed for the son in South America and all of those sons and future sons-in-law serving in the military.  They prayed on their knees that God would bring those boys home.  They did return safely, but it did not happen that way for everyone.  My dad was a witness to the prayer habits of my grandparents.  He saw their faith in action, and it became a trademark for his own life.

One Sunday night while at First Baptist Church BTU – Baptist Training Union – he saw my mother-to-be, Louise Hudson.  My mother had planned to leave after BTU so that she could walk home before dark, but my father promised to drive her home if she could stay for church.  Sitting in church together that Sunday night was their first date.  They fell in love in those cloisters at First Baptist.

Dad wanted to see his sweetheart when she went away to college at Winthrop and drove to Rock Hill as often as possible.  Getting gasoline during the war for private use was very difficult.  Dad confessed, “I know what I did was wrong.  On Saturday afternoons, I siphoned gasoline out of the lumber trucks to put in my car.”

My parents were married on June 10, 1943.  I was born fourteen months later in August of 1944, just before the war came to an end.  I just made it ahead of the baby boomers.  My birth was an important event for my dad, who was twenty-three years old.  Dad was making $25 a week.  When I was born, he took a job painting a house so that he would have enough money to get me out of the hospital.  He said, “I didn’t know anything about being a father.  I just had a great example in my own dad.”

His father, my grandfather, became so important to me.  I was the oldest child in our family, the oldest of eight, and I was also the second oldest in the family of thirty-six grandchildren.  My oldest cousin lived in South America.  I had a very close relationship with my grandparents.

For a time, we lived on Kentucky Avenue in a home that my dad built with his own hands.  Jackie Hanks, a former member of Morningside, later lived there.

On Thursday night during visitation, Allen Smith, the first pastor at Croft, came through the line to shake my hand.  He baptized me.  His words that night reminded me of my parents’ role at Camp Croft Baptist Church.  When I was two, First Baptist Church asked my parents to start a mission church in an old army chapel from Camp Croft.  Mom and Dad gladly accepted this work.  They cleaned and restored the chapel.  During the funeral on Friday, my brother Bob told about how Dad refinished the pulpit furniture and mother reupholstered it.  Dad did any job needed, from preaching some Sundays, to organizing the Sunday School, to leading the music, to playing the piano.  Dad held about every position possible in a Baptist church – from the very highest position of working in the nursery to the very lowest position of being the chairman of the deacons.  I can tell you that is pretty much the way Dad looked at it.  He learned to play two of his favorite hymns: “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” and “The Church’s One Foundation.”  They were plodding, very slow, but he wanted to make it possible for the members to sing when the pianist was absent.  We included those two songs in his funeral service on Friday.

I mentioned a scene at the funeral I wish Norman Rockwell could have witnessed.  One morning at Croft, my father was leading the morning prayer, standing in the pew with his hands behind his back.  When I heard some scuffling noise, I opened my eyes and saw my three younger brothers making a figure eight in and out between his legs.  Dad continued praying without ever missing a beat.  He knew how to hold his roles as a churchman and a father in balance.  My dad knew that ministry was a part of the home.  Paul uses the phrase “the church in your house” in Philemon.

Once that little church in Camp Croft was established, we moved back to First Baptist where Dad remained a member for seventy-two years.

My father could form a relationship with a person about as quickly as anyone I have ever seen.  He never met a stranger.  He had a knack for taking an interest in people and having them respond to him.  He made many, many cold-call visits to people.  He invited them to church; but most of all, he invited them to accept Jesus as their Savior.  He told me, “Kirk, this is not hard.  Just tell them what Jesus has done for you.  Tell them that Jesus will do the same thing for them.”  He did that so well.

Ministry was a part of his business.  A sign on the wall of the lumberyard, cross-stitched by a sister or sister-in-law, said, “Christ is the head of this business.”  That is exactly the way he lived.  My brother Bob said Dad kept three Bibles there.  I remember going back in the office and seeing Dad reading his Bible.  He prayed with employees.  He prayed with customers.  People told me Thursday night that they went by the lumberyard when they had felt so despondent.  Dad would talk with them about life’s circumstances.  He would then pray and offer advice about what they needed to do for their family, for their marriage.  Ministering on the job was his calling.

My father and mother had a wonderful gift of hospitality.  Their home was always open to guests such as Corrie Ten Boon, Strom Thurmond, Cliff and Billie Barrow, and then Cliff and Ann.  Nathan Neighbors and Ashley lived in their home for few weeks after Dad married.  Holly and Mike Irvin did the same.

The spirit of hospitality went with Dad everywhere.  Dad was admitted to the rehab unit at Mary Black for a while.  Dad liked to call the physical therapist there his physical terrorist.  On one occasion, all the patients seemed to be depressed.  Dad decided to give a party.  Ruth took food orders from everyone – patients and staff – and Dad bought Beacon food for the entire Mary Black rehab unit.  The hospital administration was not so pleased about having Beacon food in rehab.  The next night, Dad ordered pizza for everyone.

About three days later, all the patients were moved into the hall during a tornado warning.  Dad told the story about Elijah on Mount Horeb, about how God was not in the wind or the earthquake or the fire.  God was in the still small voice.  He led all those patients in a prayer and then sang hymns with them until the warning passed.  Dad could turn any situation into a party or a worship service.  He had the knack for doing what was right.

My sister was in a terrible automobile accident when she was eight months pregnant.  A car ran over her in a parking lot at the beach, fracturing her pelvis in four places.  The little child she was carrying, Katherine, was severely brain damaged.  The two stayed in the hospital in Conway for a long time.  Once they were finally transferred to the neonatal unit at Spartanburg Regional, Dad and I visited them. We held little Katherine and had a prayer of dedication.

After we left the hospital and I was driving down Pine Street, I looked over and saw one tear rolling down my dad’s cheek.  I asked, “Dad, it never ends, does it?”

He answered, “No.  You pray for your children, and you raise them.  Then they get married and have babies.  There are just more and more people to care about and pray for.  I would keep any one of you from hurting, but I cannot do that.  I have to keep reminding myself that you belong to God.”

Dad prayed for every single member of his family by name.  He had a schedule in which he prayed for one family every day, including all the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.  He thought that a child could never learn to trust the Father in heaven if that child could not learn to trust an earthly father.  Dad also believed that he had to exemplify the love of the heavenly Father.  He knew that an earthly father had to keep his promises.  I would suggest to you that he did that.  He was a promise-keeper before such a group was organized.

Dad may be the most generous person I have ever known.  I made $12 a week when I started working at the lumberyard.  I worked twelve hours a day.  On Saturdays my pay envelope would include a ten dollar bill, a one dollar bill, three quarters, two dimes, and a nickel.

I asked him one time, “Dad, why do you pay me like this?”

He explained, “I am making it easy for you.  A dollar and twenty cents of that money does not belong to you.  It belongs to the Lord.”

On Sunday mornings when we walked downstairs, all the tithe envelopes were ready for church.  He believed that the Lord had done so much for him, that he could never out-give the Lord.  He gave generously.

My dad grew up like most white men of the South with racial prejudice.  His mother was raised on a plantation of 3,000 acres on the Savannah River near Lena.  About 500 slaves worked that land.  His father would turn off the television if he saw a black person, even playing baseball.  Dad grew spiritually, and his prejudice diminished over the years.

When I went to Africa at age seventeen, I came back a different person after seeing Apartheid in Africa.  I could see the racial discrimination in my hometown.  I knew that even some of my family could not see the intolerance around them.  When I decided to lead Bible School in three black churches after my freshman year in college, I know my dad probably did not understand what I was doing.  That is not what white boys did in 1963.

One of Dad’s employees was Willis Jenkins, whom we called Wid.  He was Dad’s age.  He died of congestive heart failure several years ago.  Dad, Bob, and I attended the funeral for Wid.  When leaving the service, my dad said something I did not expect.  He said, “Wid was like a brother to me.”  I could see a change in him.

Morningside has had exchange services with Mount Moriah, Majority Baptist, and then with New Beginnings over the years.  My dad told me, “Kirk, I have been prejudiced all my life.  The other night, I got down on my knees and prayed, ‘Lord, you know I have been prejudiced.  I want you to change my heart.  I want you to take this intolerance out of my heart.’  All of the prejudice is not quite gone, but I can tell that the Lord is working on me.”  He told me after Cecil and Debra Turley joined this church, “That is one of the best things that has ever happened to Morningside.”

Dad sold the building materials used to construct the Buddhist temple in Camp Croft.  After it was built, a monk from Vietnam asked my dad to see the temple.  Dad did not understand everything, but he said to me, “Those people have as much right to worship as we do.  The fact that they are here gives us an opportunity to witness to them and tell them about the love of Jesus.”

After the Community Thanksgiving Service at Temple B’nai Israel in November, he said to me, “I have lived in Spartanburg all of my life, and I have never really known much about these people.  It was high time I went over there and learned something about them.”  Dad continued to grow spiritually.  We never outgrow the need to grow.

My parents believed that our most important mission was to share the love of Christ.  My mother taught the three-year-old Sunday School class for fifty-eight years.  She started the first Good News Bible Club I ever knew anything about in our backyard.  A lot of young people were won to Christ in our yard.  My dad believed that witnessing was so important, especially within the family – to your children, your grandchildren, your great-grandchildren. On Saturday nights, Dad always prepared a Sunday School lesson.  He wanted to be prepared in case someone needed him to teach.  He continued to grow spiritually.

I said, “Dad, you cannot be a deacon at Morningside, not as long as I am pastor.”

He said, “That’s fine.  There’s plenty to do.”

Did you know that he was dominated for deacon twice before he ever joined the church?

I remember one day that I came home from buying groceries with Clare.  A caller in desperate need had left a message on the answering machine, asking me to come right away to the emergency room.  I unloaded the groceries and drove to the ER.  When I got there, my dad was sitting with this family in crisis.

I asked, “What are you doing here?”

He said, “Kirk, the family called me, looking for you.  I thought I would just come to the hospital.”  Like a staff member, he was sitting by the bedside, praying with people in need.

When Mama died, Dad was devastated.  He said he was never going to remarry.  “I had the best.  There will never be another wife.”  He just had too much love to give.  When Ruth came along, I could see that his attitude was changing.  They fell in love.  After he and Ruth married, he taught the ladies’ Sunday School class.  Ruth felt compelled to chaperone.  That was probably a good idea.

Paul wrote in Galatians 5:22 about what he called the Fruits of the Spirit:  “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, humility, self-control.”  That is quite a lineup.  I am not sure anybody can live up to that, but I think my dad came about as close as anyone.

Dad had a long life.  He told me once, “If I had known I was going to live this long, I would have taken better care of myself.”

I am going to miss him.  I am going to miss his laughter.  I am going to miss his prayers.  I am going to miss having breakfast with him.  We enjoyed our time together.  He is right where he needs to be.

I have asked the choir to sing a song for us that is so appropriate for my father’s life.

We’re pilgrims on the journey
Of the narrow road
And those who’ve gone before us line the way
Cheering on the faithful, encouraging the weary
Their lives a stirring testament to God’s sustaining grace

Surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses
Let us run the race not only for the prize
But as those who’ve gone before us
Let us leave to those behind us
The heritage of faithfulness passed on through godly lives

Oh may all who come behind us find us faithful
May the fire of our devotion light their way
May the footprints that we leave
Lead them to believe
And the lives we live inspire them to obey

Oh may all who come behind us find us faithful

After all our hopes and dreams have come and gone
And our children sift through all we’ve left behind
May the clues that they discover and the memories they uncover
Become the light that leads them to the road we each must find

If we are people of faith, others ought to see the evidence in our lives.

Have you accepted Christ Jesus as your Savior?  If not, we extend that invitation to you.  It may be that you know Jesus, but you have drifted away from him.  You know you need to make a rededication of your life.  If that is your case, we invite you to make that decision.  We invite your response.

Kirk H. Neely
© April 2011


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