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ON MAKING AND KEEPING RESOLUTIONS FOR THE NEW YEAR

January 2, 2022

Over these past months, I have asked that each of us contribute to our local charitable agencies. Thank you for all you have done. I will continue making suggestions because I have learned that unless these nonprofit organizations are called to mind, they are easily forgotten.  Please know that I respect your freedom to choose those 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 St. Luke’s Free Clinic, 162 N Dean St, Spartanburg, SC 29302 – (864) 542-2273.

The beginning of the New Year brings with it a flurry of resolutions, ranging from the impossible to the foolish. Many pledges and promises will be short-lived and will meet with mixed results.

A man in Georgia resolved to win the lottery. He spent so much money on tickets that his exasperated wife left him.

A woman in New York resolved to adopt a new pet every month. Her landlord soon evicted her from her apartment.

Most of us have had the unhappy experience of making resolutions we could not keep. Failure to honor our goals has often left us feeling guilty.

Here are some tongue-in-cheek suggestions that should be relatively easy for us to adopt.

  1. Gain weight, at least 20 pounds.
  2. Stop exercising.
  3. Read less. It makes you think too much.
  4. Watch more TV.
  5. Procrastinate more. Start next week.

The new year is both a time for looking back and for anticipating the year ahead. It’s a time to reflect on the changes that might improve our lives and to resolve to make those changes. According to Time.com, the top ten New Year’s resolutions made by contemporary Americans are also the ones we have the most difficulty keeping. This list may help you consider your goals for the coming year.

  1. Lose weight and get fit.
  2. Quit smoking.
  3. Learn something new.
  4. Eat a healthier diet.
  5. Manage money.
  6. Spend more time with family and friends.
  7. Reduce stress.
  8. Make better use of time.
  9. Simplify by getting rid of clutter and becoming organized.
  10. Quit drinking alcohol.

Three psychiatrists at the University of Maryland Medical Center, who are also professors of psychiatry, advise that the key to achieving even the loftiest goals is to get started immediately. Allow action to precede motivation. Don’t wait until the mood seems right. Begin now! 

Consider these additional tips for keeping New Year’s resolutions:

  • A resolution is a dream with a deadline.  A goal without a deadline is wishful thinking. Having a timeline helps to make our resolution a reality. The plan can be accomplished with a timetable to motivate us to work hard.  A deadline inspires us to achieve the desired results. Goals with timelines give us something to anticipate.  Success becomes its own reward.
  • Be positive. Avoid perfectionist thinking. While we certainly want to better ourselves, it is healthier to think positively than to focus on how much we fall short of our aspirations.
  • View setbacks as lessons for growth. Mistakes can be and usually are learning opportunities. If we fall short of our goals, ask what hindered us from achieving them. Then try to make corrections. Resolutions often require midcourse corrections.
  • Make resolutions that are flexible and realistic. We do well to avoid words like never and always in our resolutions. Think in terms of gradual, steady improvement.
  • Sharing our goals with trusted friends gives us a sense of accountability. They can gently nudge us in the right direction when we are off course. Accountability leads to responsibility and contributes to success.  
  • Giving our resolutions personal meaning contributes to our endurance. Our goals are best when they are something we really desire to change or achieve, not just something that others say will be good for us. We are more likely to be successful with strong internal motivation.
  • Set realistic and attainable goals. Take small steps that are likely to be met with success. Join a weight loss program rather than trying to lose ten pounds in a week. Try to lose one pound a week instead.
  • Acknowledge the spiritual component of our goals. A good resolution will honor our physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual dimensions.

In my personal experience with New Year’s resolutions, I am more likely to succeed if the goal is not simply self-improvement. A higher purpose is to make life better for others, as well as for ourselves. A few examples may prompt a similar sense of resolve for you. This is a list I have honed over the years:

  1. Express more appreciation for others. Make opportunities to offer a simple thank you. A word of encouragement affirms others and reduces stress for them and for us.
  2. Perform random acts of kindness. These gifts of grace ease the way for others.
  3. Plant a tree or a few flowers to brighten your corner of the world.
  4. Recycle.  Doing so helps the environment and raises our awareness. We need to treat our planet with care.
  5. Give a handshake, a hug, or a pat on the back. Kneel when you speak with a child. Call a person by name and look them in the eye. Personal contact enhances life.
  6. Vote. Your voice makes a difference for us all.
  7. Obey the law, especially when driving. Everybody benefits.
  8. Pray beyond your own circle of concern.  Impart hope to others.

The best resolutions are not only those that make us better individuals but those that make the world a better place for us all.

At the beginning of 2022, we all face the continuation of the global pandemic now so familiar to us as COVID-19. The deaths from the coronavirus worldwide now exceed 5,416,273 people, the number as of December 27, 2021. 

Since the outbreak began, our son-in-law Jason has worked as a nurse on the COVID unit at Spartanburg Regional Medical Center. He has seen up close what this pandemic has done to so many people and their families. In my opinion, Jay, and those who work with him, are hometown heroes.

The Plague is a novel by Albert Camus. Published in 1947, it tells the story of a plague sweeping the French-Algerian city of Oran.

The novel became a bestseller during the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic of 2020.  British publisher Penguin Classics reported struggling to keep up with demand. During its nationwide lockdown, sales in Italy tripled, and it became a top-ten bestseller.  Penguin Classics’ editorial director said, “It couldn’t be more relevant to the current moment.”  Camus’ daughter Catherine noted that the message of the novel had newfound relevance in that “we are not responsible for the coronavirus, but we can be responsible in the way we respond to it.”

In the novel, the narrator and main character is Dr. Bernard Rieux. He is thirty-five years old and is a highly respected surgeon. Some of his colleagues consider him a hero. Rieux says, “There’s no question of heroism in all this. It’s a matter of common decency. That’s an idea which may make some people smile, but the only means of fighting a plague is — common decency.”

I believe Jay and his colleagues would agree.

There is a resolution for all of us. Common decency is expressed beautifully in the Golden Rule. Treat other people the way you want to be treated.

For several years, I have enjoyed using the daily devotion book Forward Day by Day. It is a quarterly publication of Forward Movement (412 Sycamore St., Cincinnati, OH 45202), an agency of the Episcopal Church. Every issue includes a section entitled “Morning Resolve” that has become a part of my prayer life each day. I have taken the liberty of sharing a slightly different version to be appropriate to people of faith in many religions.

A Morning Resolve for Every Day

I will try this day to live a simple, sincere, and serene life, repelling promptly every thought of discontent, anxiety, discouragement, impurity, and self-seeking; cultivating cheerfulness, magnanimity, charity, and the habit of holy silence; exercising economy in expenditure, generosity in giving, carefulness in conversation, diligence in appointed service, fidelity to every trust, and a childlike faith in God.

I will try to be faithful in those habits of prayer, work, study, physical exercise, eating, and sleep, which I believe God has shown me to be right.

I cannot do this in my own strength, nor even with a hope of success attempt it. Therefore, I look to God for encouragement and strength. Amen.

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

He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com

CARDS AND LETTERS AFTER CHRISTMAS

December 25, 2021

During these difficult days for many people, Clare and I have considered what we might do to help those in need. We have decided to continue our support for the charitable nonprofit organizations that are serving our community. Each week in this space, I will ask you to consider helping one charity. During this holy season, please volunteer or donate, as you are able, to your place of worship or to your favorite charity. Thank you.

Is there anything as over as Christmas? Fresh green trees that have graced our homes for weeks begin to drop needles until they are discarded along city streets, waiting like fallen soldiers to be collected by the body wagon. Colorful wrapping paper and bright ribbons are reduced to trash as quickly as gifts are torn open. Even artificial trees are stored in plastic containers the size of coffins. Decorations are packed away in the basement, the attic, or the garage until next year.

Christmas is over!

So, what do we do with the Christmas cards and letters we have received? At our house, the cards with family pictures go on the refrigerator. Christmas letters are put aside to read at a more leisurely pace. Some of the correspondence is personal and will find a place to be savored for years to come. The cards from charitable organizations will be considered with prayer. We cannot give to every good cause, so Clare and I decide together.  Cards with beautiful pictures go to the grandchildren to cut and paste to make their own cards.

In December 1928, just before the Great Depression, Mildred King walked into a card shop to look for a Christmas greeting for her brother.  Times were hard.  There was little she could afford to purchase.

Being British, she was attracted to a card with an illustration of a tartan-clad Scotsman reading by candlelight.  The message inside read, “Do not get careless and lose this card.  You can send it next year if times get hard.  So sign your name in pencil.”

For the next fifty years, Mildred King and her brother took turns signing their name and the date in pencil and mailing the card back and forth to each other.

After her brother died, Mildred felt sure that the card must have been discarded.  To her surprise, just a few days before Christmas, she opened an envelope, and there was the card, signed and dated in pencil by her nephew. The tradition continued into the next generation.

Christmas cards start appearing in our mail the day after Thanksgiving at our home. We receive them well after the New Year. These greetings from family and friends far and near are welcomed blessings in our home.  When our children return home for Christmas, they enjoy looking through the cards, especially those with family pictures and personal notes.

The tradition of exchanging Christmas cards began in the 1840s when Queen Victoria sent cards from her palace.  Within three years, commercial Christmas cards had been introduced throughout England.

The first commercial Christmas cards, commissioned by Sir Henry Cole in London in 1843, featured an illustration by John Callcott Horsley. In 1875, Louis Prang introduced Victorian-style cards in the United States.  The first official White House card was sent in 1953 by President Eisenhower.

Many charitable organizations offer unique Christmas cards as a fundraising tool. The most famous are those produced by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). The wonderful tradition of UNICEF Christmas cards began in 1949.

From the beginning, Christmas cards have been avidly collected. Queen Mary amassed an extensive collection that is now housed in the British Museum. Specimens from the golden age of printing (1840s-1890s) are especially prized and bring large sums at auctions. In December 2005, one of Horsley’s original cards sold for nearly $18,000.

Each year Clare and I order Christmas and Hanukkah postage stamps to use on our holiday mailings.  Many countries produce brightly colored official Christmas stamps. They usually depict some aspect of the Christmas tradition or a Nativity scene. These holiday stamps have also become collectibles. In 2004, the German Post Office gave away 20 million free scented stickers to make Christmas cards smell like a fir Christmas tree, cinnamon, gingerbread, honey-wax candles, baked apples, or oranges. I wonder if postal workers enjoyed those mingled aromas as they processed the mail.

Advances in digital photography and printing have provided the technology for people to craft their own cards. These computer-designed cards may include personal touches such as family photos and holiday snapshots.

Many people send cards to both close friends and distant acquaintances, potentially making the sending of cards a labor-intensive chore. 

In recent years, technology has led to the decline of the Christmas card.  E-mail and Facebook allow for more frequent contact with friends and family. Those in the younger generation, raised without handwritten correspondence, find addressing cards tedious.  Web sites now offer free online Christmas cards. Even Hallmark provides e-cards.

Some people take the annual mass mailing of cards as an opportunity to update everybody with their latest family news. They may include a Christmas letter reporting on the year’s events. I scan these lengthy epistles, but Clare reads them and points out details I should know.

Christmas letters meet with a mixed reception.  Family members may object to how the family Christmas letter presents them.  An entire episode of the popular television show “Everybody Loves Raymond” was built around conflict over the content of just such a letter.

Friends sent this parody of a Christmas letter to us. I include it because it is funny. The names have been changed to protect the guilty.

Dear Friends,

This has truly been another year of magic and wonder.

Kelly, almost 3, continues to amaze the professors at Harvard University with her aptitude in foreign languages.  She intends to spend this holiday translating War and Peace into Arabic and Cantonese.

Ernest, now 5, is growing by leaps and bounds. After getting his first set of building blocks, he seemed quite interested in large buildings. He designed his first skyscraper this year, and ground was broken in Hong Kong for the new Ernest McKnight Towers.

Janet had a busy year. Along with her work as President of the American Cancer Society, she has introduced a series of children’s novels and a line of handmade activewear. We are particularly proud of Mom. She is a starting forward on the United States World Cup Soccer Team.

Dan was immersed in his graduate school studies and accepted a Nobel Prize for his discoveries in quantum physics. We are proud of his work serving on the Board of Directors of IBM, Coca-Cola, and Walt Disney.

We were able to squeeze a little traveling in this year. We started in Aspen, went to Belarus, the Congo, Denmark, Ethiopia, the Falkland Islands, Greenland, Holland, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, South Korea, Venezuela, and Zaire. Our trip sailing the new boat around the world was a great experience for the kids.

Other than that, it was a very quiet year. So from our household to yours, all the blessings of the season, and may your New Year be prosperous.

The McKnight Family,

Janet, Dan, Ernest, and Kelly

P.S.  Yesterday, we won the $150 Million Powerball Lottery.

It is a funny letter, but it misses the point of a Christmas greeting.

What is the purpose of a greeting card or a holiday letter?  I have often thought that the fruit of the Spirit delineated by the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Galatians would make a reliable guide for designing Christmas greetings. “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23).

Most of the virtues listed by the Apostle Paul as the fruit of the Spirit would make a lovely Christmas card, except for the last one. “May God grant you love, joy, and peace at Christmas” would be well-received. But imagine receiving a beautiful holiday card with the message, “Our prayer is that God will grant you self-control during the holidays.”

Come to think of it, that might be precisely what many of us need to hear.

The holidays for Jill were always hectic.  She operated a catering business from her home. She had numerous parties and receptions on her calendar. There was more to do than she could squeeze into her schedule.

One year she decided to send her Christmas cards early.  Jill was the kind of person who kept meticulous records from year to year of cards sent, and cards received.  She resolved to purge her list, striking from the list the name of any person who had failed to send her a card for the past two years.  Jill purchased the required number of cards and enough holiday stamps to mail them.  She added a brief greeting and her signature to each card before sending them ahead of the postal deadline. 

As Christmas approached, Jill received cards in her mailbox nearly every day.  Much to her chagrin, several of the people she had purged from her extensive list had sent her cards.  One busy Friday, while out shopping for Christmas gifts at a stationery store, Jill picked up a box of twenty-five generic holiday cards. She felt compelled to send a card to every person from whom she had received one.  She had mailed all but three of the additional cards to people previously expunged from her list by Christmas Eve.

A few days after Christmas, as Jill was paying her bills, she reached for one of the leftover generic cards, belatedly remembering that she had not even taken time to read the inside verse before she sent them. 

She opened the card and read in dismay:  “This little card is just to say, your Christmas gift is on the way.”  Oops!

Rushing through Christmas can be costly.  Not only can we become overextended in time, energy, and money, but we may also become depleted emotionally and spiritually. 

Many of our Christmas carols and Christmas cards remind us that we need calmness in our souls. Silence, stillness, and peacefulness are important to our most beneficial observance of this season. But these blessings can go with us into 2022. Finding the quiet center is the way to enjoy the season and preserve our sanity in the year ahead.

By the way, we don’t have to wait until December 2022 to stay in touch with those we love.

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor. His novel, December Light 1916, is a cherished holiday book. It is available at all bookstores and online booksellers. He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com

SEARCHING FOR THE MANGER

December 18, 2021

During these difficult days for many people, Clare and I have considered what we might do to help those in need. We have decided to continue our support for the charitable nonprofit organizations that are serving our community. Each week in this space, I will ask you to consider helping one charity. During this holy season, please volunteer or donate, as you are able, to your place of worship or to your favorite charity. Thank you.

Just before Christmas many years ago, Clare, our daughter, Betsy, and I made the unholy pilgrimage to a shopping mall, a cathedral of capitalism.  Clare and Betsy both know that such a trip ranks among my least favorite activities.  My attendance on this occasion was not optional. It was required.  My responsibility was to be sure the cash registers jingled their accompaniment to the piped-in Christmas carols.  I was excused to my bench and my book, resting in the assurance that I would be summoned at the proper time.

Before Clare and Betsy were ready for a late lunch, I realized I was in trouble.  I had only one book, and this trip was becoming a two-book excursion.  An hour and a half later, when I finished reading, I abandoned my spot and took up browsing.

My window shopping carried me past clothing stores and specialty shops and ended, as you might expect, in a bookstore.

There, the item that caught my eye was not a book at all.  Near the checkout area at the front of the store, a Nativity scene was displayed prominently on a large table.  The familiar depiction of the birth of Jesus was presented in large wooden figures that were handcrafted in Italy.  For a person who loves wood and appreciates the art of carving as I do, the manger scene was fascinating.  I might have held one of the figures in my hands to examine it more closely had it not been for the sign: 

DO NOT TOUCH

On the way home from the mall, Betsy asked, “Dad, did you enjoy the day?” 

I told her about the manger scene in the bookstore. 

“Too bad about that sign,” she replied.  “Manger scenes were meant to be touched.” 

In 1223, Saint Francis of Assisi placed a crèche, a miniature Nativity scene, in a church in Grecchio, Italy.  That was the beginning of a cherished Christmas tradition for many Christians.

Our family displays several Nativity scenes at various places in our home during the season of Advent.  They help us keep our focus on the center of our Christmas observance.  When we were first married, my mother made a hand-painted ceramic scene as a Christmas gift. We display it on a mirrored sideboard in the dining room. 

Over the years, we have accumulated an assortment of manger scenes that are intended for children to enjoy.  One is made from two-by-fours, cut and sanded to resemble the Holy Family.  In another, the figures are small stuffed dolls, sewn together from printed fabric and filled with batting.  When our children were younger, they molded a set from clay. All are placed on low tables to invite touching.

A sturdy, store-bought Nativity occupied our coffee table for many years.  When our children were small, I often came home after a day of pastoral work to find Fisher-Price toy figures — firefighters, police officers, doctors, and construction workers — placed next to shepherds as if they, too, had heard the angels’ message and paused from their work to worship.

I have seen Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia, and other Star Wars action figures standing next to the magi. It was as if they, too, had followed the new star from “a galaxy far, far away” through a time warp all the way to Bethlehem.    

During the Christmas season, the frequency of war in our world has renewed a vision indelibly etched in my memory.  I recall descending the stairs in our home one December morning years ago to find G. I. Joe action figures arranged in the manger scene on the coffee table. The miniature Joe and several of his well-armed buddies circled the perimeter of the crèche.  The tiny soldiers were facing outward, standing guard. 

With delighted curiosity, I asked our children, “Tell me the story about this.” 

“King Herod wants to kill Baby Jesus,” came the explanation.  “G. I. Joe and his guys are protecting him.”

Throughout the day, the model military force protected the Holy Family. That night, after everyone else had gone to bed, I sat before the Nativity and pondered.  Maybe Christians do need to protect Baby Jesus, not from Herod and his Roman soldiers, but from an internal, invisible enemy, from anything that would eliminate the Christ from our lives. 

It occurred to me that our role in Christmas is not just to protect Baby Jesus in his vulnerability. Christians have another, more important imperative, to worship this Child. 

Sitting alone in the dark, in an act of private unilateral disarmament, I carefully removed the weapons from G. I. Joe and his comrades.  I reshaped their pliable bodies. Then giving them an about-face, I switched them from an outward attack position and turned them to face the manger. The plastic soldiers knelt beside shepherds and wise men in humble adoration of the Prince of Peace.

To celebrate Advent is to come again to the stable and remember the one whose birth we celebrate. At the heart of Christmas is a baby in a feeding trough, a manger that we must seek anew each year. 

The search for the birthplace of Jesus began with the shepherds of Bethlehem. They were tending their flocks when the sky erupted in light and in song. All heaven broke loose! Scripture says they were scared to death. Hearing that a Savior had been born, they went with haste to find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in a manger.

The magi from ancient Persia joined the search when they saw an unusually bright star, a sign in the night sky that a new person of royalty had been born. Following the star, they came to Bethlehem.

Beneath the altar in the Grotto of the Nativity in Bethlehem, a silver star marks the spot believed to be the birthplace of Jesus. Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine, identified the site and ordered the construction of a church there. The Church of the Nativity was completed in 333 C. E.

During the season of Advent, thousands of Christians journey to Bethlehem to visit the holy place where the manger cradled the Christ Child. The basilica is entered through a low door called the Door of Humility. The only way to visit the birthplace of Jesus is to stoop, crouch, or bend low.

In Christian tradition, Advent is a time of preparation. As expectant parents prepare for the birth of a child, so the Church has interpreted Advent as the days of getting ready for the birth of Christ. Advent calendars and wreaths help us count down the days until the holy birthday arrives.

A season filled with activity and a hectic pace may interfere with our spiritual preparation. We may be so busy decorating our homes, attending events, and shopping ’til we drop, that we have little time to focus on the spiritual significance of the season. A favorite carol reminds us, “Let every heart prepare Him room.”

Recently, a family told me about their preparation for Christmas. “When we got the Nativity set down from the attic, the baby and the manger were missing. We don’t know what happened. We couldn’t find it anywhere.”

Finding the manger is important for all of us who celebrate the birth of Jesus.

A story originally told by Dr. Jess Moody from his experience while serving as Pastor of First Baptist Church of West Palm Beach, Florida, illustrates the importance of our quest.                In 1976, Jimmy Carter, the former governor of Georgia, was running for president. Mr. Carter had said that he was a born-again Christian. His statement created much discussion in the press and much concern from some people about his openness regarding his faith.   

At a Democratic fund-raising event in Florida, Jimmy Carter was seated on the platform with Mrs. Rose Kennedy, the mother of former President John F. Kennedy. 

Mrs. Kennedy leaned over and said, “Mr. Carter, I understand that you have been born again.” 

Mr. Carter answered, “That’s right.” 

“So have I,” Mrs. Kennedy declared.

Mr. Carter knew that she was a devout Roman Catholic. Evangelical Christians do not expect to hear Catholics speak of being born again.  Curious, he asked her to explain. 

Mrs. Kennedy said that she was grieving deeply during the Christmas season following the death of her son Joseph. She did not want Christmas to come. She did not want to celebrate. 

A maid who worked in the Kennedy home couldn’t help singing Christmas carols.  The closer Christmas came, the more carols she sang.  Finally, Mrs. Kennedy scolded, “Hush!  I don’t want to hear any more Christmas carols. I’m in no mood for Christmas.”

The woman turned to her and said, “Mrs. Kennedy, what you need is a manger in your heart.” Outraged, Rose Kennedy abruptly fired her maid.  

Later that night, Mrs. Kennedy, feeling remorse, got down on her knees beside her bed and prayed that God would put a manger in her heart. God answered her prayer.  The following day, she called the woman and asked her to return to work.  Mrs. Kennedy encouraged the maid to sing all the Christmas carols she wanted.

If we believe that we are in a time of preparation, a time of waiting to celebrate the birth of Christ again, our prayer can become

O Holy Child of Bethlehem,

Descend to us, we pray.

Cast out our sin and enter in.

Be born in us today.

The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is entered through the Door of Humility. So, too, is Advent.  For Christians, Advent is the time to search for the manger, a quest that requires a posture of humility.

Wise men and wise women still kneel in humble adoration. When we do, we will find the manger.

Each of us will find it within our own heart.

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

                    His novel, December Light 1916, is a cherished holiday book.

It is available at all bookstores and online booksellers.

He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com