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The Spirit of God in Daily Life: In Our Families

June 19, 2011
Sermon:  The Spirit of God in Daily Life:  In Our Families
Text:  Joshua 24:14-18
The Scripture for today is from the book of Joshua, Chapter 24:  “Choose you this day whom you will serve…But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”I thought that maybe today I would talk about Zebedee and the two sons of Zebedee, James and John.  In the very first chapter of Mark, Jesus called these two disciples, who were fishermen.  We see that they left their father standing in the boat when they decided to follow Jesus.  That instance offers a good Father’s Day sermon.  What is it like for this father to see his two sons walk away from the family business, from the nets and boats?  What is it like for this father to see his two sons leave everything he had taught them about fishing and earning a living to follow an itinerate rabbi?  The truth is that James and John had done exactly that.  Knowing his two sons were going to follow Jesus, however, warmed Zebedee’s heart more than anything else.Christian fathers want the same for their children.  The little book of III John puts it this way:  “No greater joy can I have than this that my children follow the truth” (1:4).  My own dad’s greatest joy, his fondest hope, was knowing that his children followed Christ.

My dad and I grew up together.  He used to tell people, “I was only twenty-three years old when Kirk was born.  I didn’t know anything about being a father except what I had learned from my own father.”

When I was just a little boy, I remember a saw at the lumberyard that cut off the ends of rough boards.  Those slabs would fall to the ground during the week.  On late Friday afternoons, my dad would pull a truck underneath the big shed where the planer was and load a truck full of those pieces of wood.  The two of us would go to the lumberyard very, very early on Saturday mornings and drive all over Spartanburg, selling firewood for fifty cents an armload.  Many people used those slabs for cooking on a wood-burning stove.  I remember thinking how special my dad was because he could drive such a big truck.  Little did I know that in a few short years I would be driving one of those trucks all over Spartanburg County for $2 a day.

My dad loved strawberries.  He grew them in one of the best patches you have ever seen.  My siblings and I used to get paid a nickel for everyone hundred wild onions we pulled out of that bed.  That was a hard-earned nickel.  We cultivated those strawberries, doing everything we knew to make them grow.  We had some of the best.

When Clare and I moved to Kentucky, I decided to till up a big area in our backyard so that we could have a strawberry patch.  Because the ground was red clay, I borrowed a trailer and loaded it with two loads of cow manure from a dairy farm.  I spread it out on that poor soil and tilled it and tilled it and tilled it before planting.   Boy, did those plants grow!  They were covered in blooms.

The next spring, those strawberries started ripening about the time that Mom and Dad came to visit us in Louisville.  I thought, I’m going to give my dad the first fruits of the harvest.  I picked some big beautiful strawberries and put them down in front of him to eat.

Dad asked, “You grew these strawberries?”

“Yes, sir.”

“What do you put on your strawberries?”

I answered, “Cow manure.”

He chuckled, “Could I recommend cream and sugar?”  He could get me.  What a sense of humor he had.

One time my brothers and I decided to build a swimming pool.   We thought that the best place was underneath the faucet next to the house.  We could just turn the faucet on to fill up the pool.  We started early in the morning with post hole diggers and shovels, digging the hole deep enough so that the water came up to about our waist.

When Dad came home for about a fifteen-minute lunch, he saw all four of us standing in that little square pool filled with muddy, yellow water.

He looked at us and said, “Boys, when I get home tonight, I want that hole filled up.”

We spent the rest of the day emptying the water and filling in our swimming pool with dirt.

Dad got some old lumber for us and actually encouraged us to build a tree house in the woods behind our house.  We built it about twenty feet high in the pen of our pony, Cocoa.  Before Dad let us go up in it to play, he tested it to see if it really was solid and reinforced it with some very large nails.  We sometimes spent the night up there.

I remember my brother Bill falling out of the tree house one time.  He had a soft landing.  We used to clean out Cocoa’s barn and dump the manure underneath the tree house.  Afraid the pony was going to step on him, Bill jumped up, climbed over the fence, ran to the garden, and lay down, before yelling for help.

When my mother heard the commotion, she went to check on him and asked, “Bill, what happened?”

He explained, “I fell out of the tree house.”  Remember that the tree house was down in the woods, and he was lying up in the garden.

“How did you get up here?”

He answered, “I was afraid Cocoa would step on me.”

“Bill, you get up and walk to the house.”

Cocoa, our pony, was big, big as ponies go.  He had a bad habit of getting out of his fenced area.  Neighbors called us and complained that he was eating their marigolds or petunias.  Dad helped us get Cocoa back into his pen.

We rarely rode Cocoa during the winter.  One early spring, Dad decided that because the pony had not been ridden in awhile, no one could ride until he had a chance to show the pony who was boss.  When he tried to put the saddle on Cocoa, the pony tried to bloat up so that the harness would not fit very well.

Dad told us, “You just have to show Cocoa who’s boss.  Let me show you how to do that.”

After putting on the bridle and bit, he started riding across the yard.  Cocoa broke into a full gallop, and I do not think Dad intended that to happen.  That pony stopped dead on a dime and threw my dad over his head.  Dad landed on his back, stilling holding the reins.

My mother ran to see about him and asked, “Have you find out who’s boss yet?”

Dad knew how to take humility.  He had a wife who knew how to give it to him.  I do, too.

Several members of the Neely family have had problems with their left knee.  It is their Achilles’ heel. My dad hurt his knee when he fell on rocks in the North Pacolet River while swimming one day.  That knee bothered him just about all of his life, even after he had knee replacement.

I injured my left knee while playing in a junior high football game in Gaffney.  One of those guys on the team, always our archrivals, threw a crack-back block on me and torn the cartilage in both of my knees at the same time.  My left knee was hurt the most.  I was on crutches for a long time, and I had to have it drained a number of times.  When the doctor told me that I would never be a professional football player, it broke my heart.

Day after day I sat on the couch with an ice pack on my knee.  I often moaned and groaned about my injury.

One afternoon, Daddy came home and said, “I bought you something.”  He handed me a used Stella guitar, which he had bought from a pawn shop.  He said, “I figured that if you’re going to be singing the blues, you might as well play a guitar.”

The next day, he brought home a Chet Atkins album, explaining, “This guy traded a pistol for his first guitar.  He learned to play in the mountains of Tennessee by teaching himself.”  I read the back of the album cover and started listening to that record.  Chet Atkins became a favorite musician of mine.  He was one of Dad’s favorites, too.  I still thump on a guitar every now and then.  I play it for my grandchildren.

As a boy, I really wanted to work at the lumberyard.  All the men I admired worked there:  my uncles, my grandfather, my dad.  Dad told me, “You cannot work at the lumberyard until you learn to work for your mother.”  That was harder than working at the lumberyard.

Finally, when I was in the seventh grade, he let me go to work, paying me fifty cents a day.  I asked him one time why he paid me so little.  He said, “Be glad I didn’t pay you what you were worth.”

I will never forget the first day on the job.  I was to unload a boxcar load of cement.  I worked and worked and worked.  It took me too days to unload that cement.  That night when I got home, Mama had fixed a big meal.  I was so tired that I went sound asleep at the supper table.  Daddy put me in the bed.

He woke me up at 5:00 the next morning and asked, “Are you ready to go to work?”

I answered, “Yes, sir!”

Working at the lumberyard was hard work.  It was there that I learned a very important lesson from him:  hard work is a noble thing to do.  Dad was never afraid to work hard.  He never avoided hard work.  I can remember his setting up a card table at our home and working on the books of the lumberyard late at night.  He taught me how to work.  He taught us all how to work.

Dad taught me how to drive on a three-ton lumber truck.  I got my driver’s license when I was fourteen and had my first fender-bender when I was about fifteen.  I will never forget that when I called and told him I had had a wreck, he asked, “Kirk, are you OK?”  He did not ask, “Whose fault was it?” or “How much damage was done?”  His only question was, “Kirk, are you OK?”

When he arrived at the scene a few minutes later, he saw that the car was not drivable.  Once the car was towed away to a body shop, he told me, “Get in here and drive my car.”

When I hesitated, he said, “Get in this car and drive.  The very first thing you need to do after an accident is drive.  You cannot be afraid to drive because you have had an accident.”

He instilled confidence and trust in his children.  He believed that making a mistake was OK as long as we learned something from the experience.  He tried his best to teach us all that.

I always thought of a chair in my mother’s bedroom as a confessional.  She expected me to come home after a date, sit in that chair, and debrief.  She would always wait up, but Dad was sometimes already asleep.

One night when I got home early, I walked back to their bedroom.  I will never forget walking back there to their bedroom and seeing my parents down on their knees, praying for me.  Just as I reached to open the door, I heard my dad calling my name in prayer.  “Lord, we pray for Kirk.  We pray that You will bring him home safely.  We pray that You will help him be the Christian man You want him to be.”  It makes all the difference when a child knows that parents are praying for him or her.

Whenever somebody asked my dad how he raised eight kids, he always answered, “I wore out the seat of their pants and the knees of my pants.”

I came home from Furman one time when I was a sophomore – a word consisting of two Greek words:  sophos, meaning wisdom and moros, meaning fool.  The word sophomore means “wise fool.”  I was smoking a Dr. Grabow pipe with cherry blend tobacco.  You cannot imagine how distinguished I looked!  I blasted Dad, unloading my heavy artillery for about ten minutes.  I told him, “I am a grown man.  I can make my own decisions now.”

When I had finished my tirade, he looked at me and calmly asked, “Now that you have that out of your system, would you like to go fishing?”

“Well, yeah…”  The two of us went fishing together.  He caught fish, but I could not catch anything because I was so flustered.

Later I asked him about his reaction to my outburst.  He explained, “Kirk, I knew from the time you were a little boy that you were going to have to take me on one day.  I knew all you boys would.  I had to take my dad on.  I just always prayed that when the time came God would give me the grace to be the calm and let you be the storm.  That is what I tried to do.”

Boy, did Dad do that well!  One of the best lessons he taught me about parenting my own children is that I need to be the calm and let them be the storm.

When I was ordained on April Fool’s Day 1970, he came through the line, laid his hands on my head and said, “God bless you, my son.  God bless you, my brother.”

I asked him about that, and he answered, “Kirk, you will always be my son.  You are now my brother in Christ.”

He really believed that.

Dad sometimes did not show a lot of emotion.  After I started working at the lumberyard, I thought that he was never going to hug me again.  He had learned somewhere along the line, I suppose, that grown men did not hug.

When I was in seminary, I decided that I was going to make him hug me.  One time when I came home, I walked up to him and grabbed him in my arms.  I gave him a bear hug and said, “Dad, I love you.  I sure have missed you.”

A little tear came to his eyes.  He asked, “What is that all about?”

I said, “I have decided that I am going to hug you.”

“I will hug you, too.”

He often hugged me after that.  Even grown men like to be hugged by their fathers.  He hugged many other people, as well.  I hug my children as an expression of affection.

Think about what happened when the prodigal son returned home.   The father hugged his son.  It is an expression of affection.  When you see that kind of love in your earthly father, you understand something of the love of your heavenly Father.

When Clare and I lost our first child by miscarriage, I did not see much emotion from Dad.  I told him, “Dad, I don’t think this child meant very much to you.”

Without a word, he went to his bedroom closet and pulled down a little pair of white shoes he had bought for his first grandchild.  I knew then that he was invested in having a grandchild.

My sister Jeslyn was involved in an automobile accident at the beach years ago.  She was eight months pregnant at the time, and a car ran over her pelvic area.  The little girl, Katherine, was born with brain damage.  She lived for about six months.  When she was brought to the neonatal unit at Spartanburg Regional, Dad and I went to see her, Jeslyn, and Terry.  We had an informal prayer of dedication for little Katherine.

As I was driving back home, I looked over at Dad and saw one tear running down his cheek.  I put my hand on his shoulder and asked, “Dad, it is never over, is it?”

“No.  It’s never over.  You love you children so much, and you try to do the best you can for them.  They grow up, get married and have children of their own.  There are just more and more and more to love and care about.”

What a capacity for love he had!  He loved every one of us – eight children, forty-five grandchildren, and twenty-three great grandchildren at last count.  He prayed for us by name.  It took him a week to get through the list.  He believed in prayer.

When he joined Morningside, he grabbed me by the lapel and said, “You are the oldest of my eight children and the last of my eight pastors.”

I still miss my father.  I will miss him for a long time.  On this Father’s Day in my heart of hearts, my deepest feeling is one of great appreciation.  I am so thankful for the kind of dad I had.  I know that not everyone gets a good dad.  I hear stories about that all the time.  Men, if you are a father, I want you to strive to be the best you can be.  “Choose you this day whom you will serve.  As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”  Nothing in the world pleased my dad any more than to know that his children are serving the Lord.

Do you know Christ Jesus?  If you have never acknowledged him as your Savior, we invite you to make that decision today.


Kirk H. Neely
©  June 2011

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