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FREEDOM FROM FEAR

July 2, 2022

This weekend Americans will again observe Independence Day. In 1776, the Second Continental Congress unanimously adopted the Declaration of Independence. The American colonies officially separated themselves from the authority of England.

Independence Day celebrations were observed soon after the nation’s birth. In 1793, Moravian settlers chose the name Wachovia for the land they received by grant in what is now North Carolina’s Piedmont region. The Moravians of Salem were among the first to mark Independence Day with a torchlight procession around the village square singing “Now Thank We All Our God.”  The celebration was a reverent expression of gratitude for freedom. When Clare and I lived in Winston-Salem, we took our children to Old Salem every Fourth of July to experience the reenactment of that simple celebration.

Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were the first to observe Independence Day west of the Mississippi. On July 4, 1804, traveling along the Missouri River through what is now Kansas, the expedition stopped for the night at the mouth of a stream. They fired a cannon at sunset and distributed an extra ration of whiskey to their men to mark the day. Independence Creek was named in honor of the event.

It was not until after the War of 1812 that the holiday became a nationwide celebration. Parades were part of the festivities. Politicians used the occasions to give rousing speeches. Events like groundbreaking ceremonies for the Erie Canal and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroads were scheduled to coincide with July Fourth celebration.

My mother, Louise Hudson Neely, was born July 4, 1922. Had she lived in this world long enough, she would be one hundred years old. Though Mama will not be with us, the family plans to celebrate her birthday and Independence Day with a picnic, a family parade, and a prayer of gratitude.

When I was a young boy, I was impressed that everybody took the day off on Mama’s birthday. The lumberyard was closed, and the entire Neely family gathered at Pappy’s farm near Walnut Grove. We enjoyed a picnic featuring fried chicken, soggy tomato sandwiches, Mammy’s coleslaw, potato salad, deviled eggs, and blackberry cobbler. We went swimming in the pond. Some tried fishing, but the mosquitoes bit more than the fish. After a supper of leftovers, we watched as our uncles put on a fireworks display.

Because it was Mama’s birthday, it took me a while to realize that all of the festivities were not in her honor. Instead, we were celebrating the birth of our nation.   

When I was a student at Cooperative School, now E. P. Todd School, one of my teachers required the class to memorize a brief passage from the Declaration. At the family picnic on July fourth, we pledged allegiance to the flag of the United States of America. My grandfather led us all in a blessing, not only for the good food and our family but also for our country. Those who had memorized the selection from the Declaration of Independence repeated it by heart.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

In the State of the Union Address, delivered to the 77th United States Congress on January 6, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt enumerated four fundamental freedoms that should be the rights of human beings everywhere in the world:

  1. Freedom of speech and expression
  2. Freedom for every person to worship in their own way
  3. Freedom from want
  4. Freedom from fear

“The Four Freedoms” speech inspired a set of four paintings by Norman Rockwell. They were printed in The Saturday Evening Post in 1943, accompanied by essays on the Four Freedoms.

Freedom from fear is rare. John Kenneth Galbreath called our time the age of anxiety. We live in a world dominated by fear. We start our day with morning headlines that are alarming. The 11:00 evening news sends us to bed distraught. We live with constant angst. Few of us enjoy freedom from fear.

Since the atrocities of September 11, 2001, America has been on alert. Terrorists took possession of four commercial jet planes, converting them to weapons of mass destruction capable of attacking structures that had stood as symbols of strength. Our anger and fear have been magnified. Rarely in our history have we felt so vulnerable and so violated. The apprehension created by daily life pales in comparison to the distressing events of our world.

Terrorism literally strikes terror in the hearts of victims. Fear is the purpose of terrorist activity. It is not a new thing. For centuries, those who sought to control others have utilized fear as a means of domination. From Attila the Hun to Adolph Hitler, from the Christian Inquisition to Islam’s evangelism by the sword, from the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution to the Bolshevik Revolution under Lenin and Stalin, from vigilante groups in the Wild West to the Ku Klux Klan in the postwar South, merchants of fear have attempted to control others by terror. The war in Ukraine is yet another example of the power of oppression.

Fear is rampant in our world and in our country. Mass shootings in schools and places of worship have intensified the horror. On January 6, 2021, American citizens stormed the Capitol building hoping to overturn our democracy.

The COVID pandemic has resulted in more than one million deaths in our country alone. Fear abounds in our world, in our country, in our families, and in our lives.

How can we secure freedom from fear in a world like ours?

I have only two suggestions. You may dismiss these ideas as “preacher talk” and cast them aside. These are what I believe to be the truth. Please pause for a moment to consider these ideas.

First, the ordinary circumstances of life often cause anxiety. Every day holds uncertainties and unexpected situations that are part of living. Watching a child learn to swim or helping a teenager drive can be scary. Sending a young adult into military service or putting an older adult on hospice care can fill us with dread.  

My mother, who had eight children and fifty-four grandchildren, had many reasons for worry. Mama had a favorite scripture verse that she wanted us to memorize. II Timothy 1:7 reads, “God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and love and a sound mind.” The One who created us does not intend for us to live in fear. We were created in the image of the Maker who loves us. So even when we face the ordinary crises of life or the greater terrors of famine and disease, war and death, we can be sure that we are not alone. We are surrounded by love. An elderly apostle wrote, “Perfect love casts out fear.”

Second, we are often afraid of other people. In his book, The Nature of Prejudice, Harvard psychologist Gordon Allport identified fear as the root cause of prejudice. Our fear of people who are different from us leads to bias. Discrimination, in turn, intensifies anxiety and leads to acts of violence. From Allport’s perspective, fear breeds greater fear. In other words, there is a cycle of fear.

Fear is the primary emotion at the root of terrorism and war. The more afraid we are of other people, the more we react with suspicion, prejudice, and violence. No wonder freedom from fear is so rare.

In his call for a declaration of war following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt proclaimed, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” He was right!

The master teacher instructed, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.” Mark Twain’s twist on that was, “Love your enemies. This will gratify some people and astonish the rest.” It is a difficult concept, but love is the only way toward freedom from fear.

Howard Thurman, born in 1900, was the grandson of slaves. He grew up as a sharecropper’s son. He was a contemporary of Martin Luther King, Sr., and a mentor to his son, Martin Luther King, Jr. He told a story about the time his family moved into a farmhouse that shared a back border with another sharecropper family. Soon after the Thurman family arrived, the neighbor cleaned out his chicken house, dumping all of the manure over the fence into the Thurmans’ backyard. Howard was furious, convinced that the act was racially motivated.

His mother spoke calmly, “I know what to do.”

For weeks, Howard’s mother did nothing. Young Howard seethed. The pile of chicken manure rotted in the hot summer sun. In the fall, Howard’s mother took a potato fork and turned over a plot of ground, working the chicken manure, now fertilizer, into the ground. In the spring, she planted the seed. By the following June, nearly a year after they had moved in, the neighbor had not spoken to the Thurmans, not even once. 

Then, one day Mrs. Thurman took Howard by the hand. They gathered fresh vegetables and flowers from the garden to fill a basket. They walked around the side of the fence and onto the neighbor’s front porch. Mrs. Thurman knocked on the door. The man who had dumped the manure into their yard opened the door. Mrs. Thurman said to the surprised man, “You were so good to share your chicken manure with us last summer. I wanted to share our vegetables and flowers with you.”

The decision to love our enemies is not an easy one. Refusing to return evil for evil, meanness for meanness, and violence for violence takes great courage that is often confused with cowardice. The wisdom of the ages teaches that it is only by love that we can overcome hate. Only by love can we break the cycle of fear. It is the way to secure freedom from fear for ourselves and our world.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu prayed, “Goodness is stronger than evil; Love is stronger than hate; Light is stronger than darkness; Life is stronger than death; Victory is ours through Him who loves us. Amen”

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, storyteller, teacher, pastoral counselor, and retired pastor.

He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com

Over these past months, I have asked that we contribute to our local charitable agencies. Thank you for all you have done. I will continue making suggestions because I have learned that these nonprofit organizations are quickly forgotten unless they are called to mind. Please know that I respect your freedom to choose agencies that are meaningful to you. One way to measure the strength of our community is to observe how we respond to those in greatest need. Please continue with your kindness and generosity. This week, please volunteer, or donate, as you are able, to SAFE Homes-Rape Crisis Coalition 236 Union Street, Spartanburg, South Carolina 29302, (864) 583-9803.

A SIMPLER LIFE: PAUSE, PRAY, PIDDLE

June 25, 2022
Author Portrait of Kirk H. Neely 2022

The Hebrew prophet of old declared, “Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength.” (Isaiah 40:31) Since March 2020, I have learned the truth of this passage again.

My cousin Candy Neely Arrington is a well-established Christian author. Her award-winning book, published this April, is Life on Pause: Learning to Wait Well. Candy rightly observes the impatience in our lives. “Life pauses seem negative, and we chafe at having our plans and pre-arranged schedules brought to a halt.” Then, she raises an important question, “But what if waiting is beneficial? What if pausing can ensure protection, provide time for preparation, or develop patience?”

One reviewer writes of this book, “I’ve waited for the dawning of a specific answer to prayer for five years now, and I don’t see even a glimmer of light on the horizon. This book mixed practical advice with soul-searching questions in my time of waiting that helped me so much.’”

Candy’s book is available through many reputable booksellers.

Dr. Eric Berne was a psychiatrist best known as the creator of transactional analysis and the author of Games People Play. Berne identified the various ways in which people spend time. One of those is pastimes. As defined by Berne, a pastime serves to make time pass agreeably, a pleasant means of amusement. A pastime differs from an activity in that a person is not emotionally invested in a pastime. For example, knocking a tennis ball around may be a pastime until you begin keeping score or working on your backhand. Then it becomes an activity.

According to Berne, we spend far too much of our lives engaged in activities. The Psalmist David said we need time for our “souls to be restored.” We need time for our engine to idle.

I heard a story about a big game hunter who set out on an African safari. He gathered all the needed supplies and employed a team of porters to carry the equipment into the interior of the Congo. His guide advised the hunter that they must reach and cross a river by nightfall because of the rising water. At flood stage, the river would become impassible.

The group broke camp at first light and pressed through the heat and humidity of the tropical forest. After traveling more than twenty miles, they arrived at the river and crossed to the far side ahead of the flood and nightfall. Porters set up camp. Cooks prepared the evening meal. The weary travelers slept through the night.

The following morning dawned sunny and bright. The hunter was ready to continue the journey. He instructed the guide to break camp and prepare to leave.

“Sir, we cannot travel today.” The guide said.

“Why not?” asked the hunter in a concerned tone.

“The men say they will not move today.”

The furious hunter demanded, “They will travel, or they will not be paid.”

“Sir, they will not travel today.

“And why not?”

“Sir, the men say they worked so hard and traveled so far yesterday that they must take a day to let their souls catch up with their bodies.”

We also need time to let body and soul catch up with each other.

The quest for simplicity is tedious. It takes time and requires difficult decisions. Try cleaning out that drawer where every odd and end, every broken part, even loose change accumulates. Then move to your calendar and begin thinking about which commitments are essential and which can be eliminated. Our lives so quickly become cluttered.

Dr. David Emory Shi is president emeritus at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina. He is the author of several books focusing on American cultural history, including the award-winning The Simple Life: Plain Living and High Thinking in American Culture. Dr. Shi writes, “Our current less-is-more impulse may have contemporary trappings, but the underlying idea has been around for centuries. From Puritans and Quakers to Boy Scouts and hippies, our quest for the simple life is an enduring, complex tradition in American culture.”

Shi finds that nothing is simple about our devotion to the ideal of plain living and high thinking. “Difficult choices are the price of simplicity.” Our efforts to avoid anxious social striving and compulsive materialism have been essential to the nation’s spiritual health.

The issue of spiritual health is at the heart of waiting and simplicity.

Waiting can become Sabbath time, an opportunity to ponder and reflect. At its best, it is the practice of the presence of God. It is praying with eyes wide open even amid the frantic activity swirling around us, the deafening cacophony of the world, and the distracting noise of our hearts. Spiritual guides like Roman Catholic monk Thomas Merton and Quaker friend Richard Foster call this attentiveness contemplative prayer.

An early Shaker tune puts all of this succinctly, ‘Tis a gift to be simple, ’tis a gift to be free.”   

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Rick Bragg writes a regular column for Southern Living. In the February 2012 issue, Bragg reflected on an obituary he saw in the Birmingham News.

Ellis Ray of Moundville passed away Saturday.

He was a loving husband, father, and grandfather

who loved to fish and piddle. He will be greatly missed.

The obituary prompted Bragg’s “Southern Journal” column, “The Fine Art of Piddling.” He calls piddling “The act of passing time, without waste or regret.” What Eric Berne called a pastime Rick Bragg identified by its more common Southern name, piddling. Piddling is not to be confused with work. It is not changing the furnace filter or sharpening a lawnmower blade. It is neither spreading mulch nor washing dishes. A person piddling never breaks a sweat.

Neither is piddling to be regarded as goofing off, killing time, or wasting time. It cannot be done kicked back in a recliner. It is a first cousin to puttering. While the Urban Dictionary (http://www.urbandictionary.com) gives other meanings for the word, in its purest form, piddling describes an integral part of our Southern heritage. Piddling is a cultivated art.

Piddling never involves a clock or a watch.

Piddling may require tools, usually no more than a pocket knife or a screwdriver.

Piddling is not on a To-Do list. It is never planned. As Bragg points out, we just meander into piddling.

I tried to think of some of the ways I piddle. These came to mind.

I sharpen the hooks on old fishing lures though I never intend to fish with them again.

I sort bent nails and old screws though I reach for a new one when I have a repair project to complete.

I doodle when I take notes. I usually end up with more doodles than meaningful words. Come to think of it, piddling may be a way of buying time rather than spending time. It keeps my hands busy while my mind is preoccupied with weightier matters.

For Christmas several years ago, our son and daughter-in-law enjoyed a lovely red cedar tree in their living room. After the holidays, their beautiful tree was laid to rest on the curb. One day while visiting, I noticed the discarded cedar. As we were pulling out of the driveway, I stopped, hoisted the tree, and threw it in the bed of my pickup truck.

When Clare asked, “Just what are your plans for that dead tree?”

“No plans,” I answered. “I just like the smell of cedar.”

I took the red cedar tree home and tossed it on the wood pile. Occasionally, I would cut a few dried branches off to use as kindling in my chimenea. Finally, nothing was left but the trunk.

When I had a little time to spare outside at night, I whittled on the aromatic wood. I singed the small loose shavings away from the trunk. Over time the cedar became smooth to the touch.

Clare wondered, “What are you making?”

“Nothing. I’m just piddling.”

One of these days, I’ll probably rub a little linseed oil on the piece of cedar. I already use it as a walking stick when I roam around the backyard. It is especially useful in steadying myself on uneven ground.

One night before the pandemic, I was out under a full moon. I walked down the railroad tie steps that descend the hill near our waterfall. In the moonlight, lying on the warm path, was a small garter snake. Using my cedar stick, I gently flipped the critter up on the bank under a hemlock tree.

Tending the geraniums on the front porch, Clare heard the disturbance and called out, “What are you doing?”

“Just piddling,” I said. “Just piddling.”

May I encourage you to pause, pray, and piddle?

It will be good for what ails you.

____________________________________________________________

Some of the stories in this column will be in the forthcoming book

Splinters: Tales from the Lumberyard

By kirk H. Neely

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, storyteller, teacher, pastoral counselor, and retired pastor.

He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com

Over these past months, I have asked that we contribute to our local charitable agencies. Thank you for all you have done. I will continue making suggestions because I have learned that these nonprofit organizations are quickly forgotten unless they are called to mind. Please know that I respect your freedom to choose agencies that are meaningful to you. One way to measure the strength of our community is to observe how we respond to those in greatest need. Please continue with your kindness and generosity. This week, please volunteer, or donate, as you are able, to The Salvation Army, P.O. Box 172557, Spartanburg, South Carolina, 29301-0062, (800) 725-2769.

FATHER’S DAY AND STRAWBERRIES: PERSONAL MUSINGS

June 18, 2022

I still don’t understand how the women in my life were able to prepare breakfast on Sunday morning, have their children ready for Sunday school and worship, get everyone to church, come back home, and serve a big dinner prepared for the family to enjoy. Father’s Day was always a feast day.

My grandmother, Mammy, fed eleven or more people at her table every Sunday. The fare was often baked ham with pineapple slices, turnip greens with rendering, candied sweet potatoes, rice and gravy, cole slaw, and apple pie with ice cream.  

My mother-in-law, Miz Lib, specialized in snowflake fried chicken, home-style mashed potatoes, creamed sweet corn, fresh green beans with slivered almonds, sliced tomatoes, homemade biscuits with peach jam, and double fudge chocolate brownies.

My mother fed ten or more at her Sunday table. Mama’s usual spread was tender pot roast with boiled red potatoes and carrots, green peas with pearl onions, fried okra, summer squash, yeast rolls, and strawberry shortcake. Dad usually made the shortcake from strawberries he had grown.

My wife, Clare, has inherited recipes from these women who have preceded her. She has enhanced the culinary traditions passed down from both sides of our family.  

Last week I visited one of our favorite South Carolina Certified Roadside Markets. Most tables and bins were loaded with fresh fruits and vegetables from Upstate farms. I purchased tomatoes, squash, and a few of the first peaches of the year. The main attraction was fresh strawberries. I bought a gallon bucket of the delicious red fruit.

We are near the end of strawberry season in the Upstate. According to the good folks at Cooley Springs, we have about two more weeks left in this growing season. The heat wave of recent days has signaled the close of a productive year. Now, it is time for peaches!

The Beatles’ song, “Strawberry Fields Forever,” was released on a 45 rpm vinyl record back in the olden days. It was on the flip side of “Penny Lane.” What is the meaning of the seemingly senseless lyrics? An answer can be found at http://www.Songfacts.com. 

Strawberry Fields was a Salvation Army orphanage in Liverpool, England. Having lost his father and mother, John Lennon felt a kinship with the homeless boys. He had fond memories of the place, especially the garden that inspired this song.

“Paul, George, and Ringo lived in government-subsidized housing. After I stopped living at Penny Lane, I moved in with my auntie into a nice place with a small garden.”

In an interview, Lennon explained, “Strawberry Fields is a real place. Near our home was Strawberry Fields, a boys’ reformatory where I used to go to garden parties with my friends. I used it as an image. Strawberry Fields forever.”

John donated money to the orphanage before his death. One of its buildings is named Lennon Hall.

The title of the Beatles’ song reminds me of Strawberry Hill on Highway 11 in northern Spartanburg County. The strawberry fields near Cooley Springs are abuzz with activity this time of year.

I made a telephone call to the folks at Strawberry Hill up on Highway 11 last week. James Cooley reports that favorable temperatures, rainfall, and sunshine earlier this year give promise for a plentiful crop of delicious berries. The delightful red berries should be available through most of June. 

 For an all too brief time every year, locally grown strawberries take the produce spotlight. From Cross Anchor to Landrum, from Cowpens to Lyman, the succulent red strawberries grown on the rolling hills of our county are the fruit of choice from mid-April through late June. Imported berries from California or Florida get us through the colder months, but we look forward to the unsurpassed flavor of the Spartanburg County beauties.

Several years ago, I brought home a gallon bucket of Spartanburg County’s finest on an early Saturday morning in April. When I walked in the front door of our home, Clare exclaimed, “Oh boy! Strawberries!” Three of our adult children and their families had come for Saturday morning brunch. Those strawberries never made it past the kitchen sink. Clare rinsed them, and the family clustered around to eat their fill. The berries evaporated. Later that day, Clare sent me out to fetch another bucket of the tasty treat.

My mother was a master chef. Strawberry shortcake was among the many rich dessert offerings at Mama’s table. She constructed her masterpiece with either angel food cake or old-fashioned homemade pound cake. The cake was sliced into layers. Each layer was saturated in turn with sweetened puréed strawberries and topped with a thick coating of real whipped cream.

There was nothing short about Mama’s reassembled cake! The towering structure was crowned with more whipped cream and decorated with fresh sliced strawberries. Just writing about Mama’s strawberry shortcake makes my mouth water and raises my cholesterol. 

I preached a series of sermons at a revival at a country church in the Lowcountry several years ago. On the final night, we enjoyed a church picnic. At the outdoor supper, an alarmingly large man sat beside me. His dinner-sized paper plate sagged under a heaping portion of strawberry shortcake. I thought for a moment that the folding chair beneath him would buckle under his weight. The plate of shortcake might have been the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. The chair held securely. When the last morsel of the dessert was consumed and the platter was licked clean, the man turned to me and said, “Now, preacher, that’s the way we’re gonna’ eat in heaven.”  

I thought to myself, “Probably sooner than later.”

In my childhood, my dad was, to me, the master strawberry grower. Dad planted his own strawberry field, a long narrow bed of Ozark Beauties next to a stand of tall yellow pine trees. The pine needles provided the mulch to protect the plants in the winter. In the early spring, the pine needles were removed to allow the plant crowns to bud. Delicate white blossoms gave a pleasing portent of the harvest to come. When the strawberries were ripe, we took turns picking. The family rule was, “Put ten in the bucket for every berry you eat.” 

Thank goodness! Otherwise, the bucket would never have been filled. 

When I was a boy, fresh berries were on our table three times a day throughout the season. Now, as then, strawberries are a daily treat in our home for a few weeks each spring. 

Strawberries over vanilla ice cream are an outstanding finale to a summer supper. The red berries sparkle in a salad of fresh fruit. Strawberries brighten the flavor and the appearance of a bowl of cold cereal. 

By the way, did I mention Mama’s strawberry shortcake? That has to be the all-time favorite for our family and for many other folks as well. Come to think of it, strawberry shortcake really might be served in heaven!

When Clare and I lived in Louisville, Kentucky, I wanted to plant my own strawberry field, a small patch in our backyard. In the fall, I tilled several bags of composted cow manure into the garden plot to enrich the clay soil. In the early spring, I set out twenty-five strawberry plants and side-dressed them with more composted cow manure. My mom and dad came for a visit precisely when the strawberries were ripe. Though few in number, the berries were plump and delicious. I proudly put a bowl of strawberries in front of my dad, the master at growing strawberries. 

He admired the bowl of fresh, red berries, “Tell me what you put on your strawberries.” 

“Plenty of cow manure,” I said. 

He looked at me with a twinkle in his eye and a playful smile on his face.

Then, he quipped, “Have you tried cream and sugar?”

Dad always did know the secret to good strawberries.

________________________________________________

Some of the stories in this column will be in the forthcoming book

Splinters: Tales from the Lumberyard

By kirk H. Neely

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, storyteller, teacher, pastoral counselor, and retired pastor.

He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com

Over these past months, I have asked that we contribute to our local charitable agencies. Thank you for all you have done. I will continue making suggestions because I have learned that these nonprofit organizations are quickly forgotten unless they are called to mind. Please know that I respect your freedom to choose agencies that are meaningful to you. One way to measure the strength of our community is to observe how we respond to those in greatest need. Please continue with your kindness and generosity. This week, please volunteer, or donate, as you are able, to Spartanburg Soup Kitchen, 136 Forest Street, Spartanburg, South Carolina 29306, (864) 585-0022.