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A LOVE THAT LASTS

February 13, 2021

Note to readers: During these difficult days for many people, Clare and I have been considering 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 have asked you to consider helping one charity. This week, please reach out to someone you know who is having a difficult time on Valentine’s Day. This may be a person who lives alone, or they may be a single parent. There are many opportunities for random acts of kindness. Thank you.

I could not have been any more smitten when I first saw Clare across the crowded dining hall at Furman University.  It was as if I had been hit in the head with a ball-peen hammer. We were both sophomores in the middle of first semester exams.  A study break in the cafeteria offered coffee, hot chocolate, and doughnuts.  I went for the food.  I found Clare.

I suppose you could say it was love at first sight. 

Some believe that love at first sight is a myth.  Research by scientists has shown that a small area of the brain responds differently to that one special person than it does to anyone else.  Deep within our gray matter, neurotransmitters are activated, creating a feeling of euphoria. That sensation can be called love at first sight.

In the English language, the word love is one of the most confusing and one of the most important, especially on Valentine’s Day.  Valentine cards, heart-shaped boxes of candy, and flower arrangements all convey the message of love. Sadly, the love of Valentine’s Day is often fleeting.  As one young woman said, “Once I get a box of candy or a vase of flowers, I am ready to move on.”

During my fifty-five years of pastoral ministry, numerous couples have come to me for help with their marriage.  The conversation often begins with, “I just don’t love him anymore.” Or “I don’t feel in love the way I did when I first met her.” 

Can we find a love that lasts?

Our conversations are seasoned with the word that is intended to convey the deepest and dearest human emotion. The words “I love chocolate” hardly express the same sentiment as “I love my child” or “I love my spouse.” 

The Greek language makes a clear distinction between feeling in love and being in love.

Eros is the word used for the spine-tingling feeling of love.  Eros was also the name of one of the lesser Greek gods whose Latin counterpart was Cupid.  According to Roman mythology, Cupid fired his arrows indiscriminately.  Struck by one of his invisible arrows, the afflicted person was supposed to fall in love with the very next person he or she met.  Love at first sight, according to the Romans, was the work of Cupid.  On Valentine’s Day expressions so often convey the infatuation known as eros.

I served as a chaplain at four National Scout Jamborees from 1985 through 1997.  One afternoon in 1985, I saw a large gathering of scouts in an enormous circle.  They had surrounded the landing zone for the Golden Knights, the United States Army Skydiving Team.  I joined the group of spectators, all gazing skyward as young army officers jumped from an airplane. As they plummeted toward the ground, they performed feats of acrobatic skill in the wild blue yonder. At just the right moment, they opened their parachutes, guiding them to a perfect landing in the middle of the circle of scouts.  Safely on terra firma, the soldiers gathered their parachutes and engaged in conversation with their admirers. 

The boys had many questions for the young officers. One question brought a silence filled with anticipation. “What is the most dangerous part of your job?” a scout asked. 

With a serious look on his face, one of the soldiers answered, “The most dangerous part of skydiving is that when you leave the airplane and begin a free fall, you have a tremendous feeling of euphoria.  If you get too caught up in that exciting feeling, you might forget to open your parachute.”

I pondered his answer for the rest of the day.  Then it occurred to me.  Falling out of an airplane and falling in love have much in common.  Falling in love is an exhilarating feeling. Caught up in the thrill of the emotions, it is quite possible to suspend sound judgment.  The spine-tingling infatuation of young love can easily displace common sense. 

As one divorce attorney explained, “Too many people get married because they pay more attention to their glands than to their hearts and minds.” Falling in love may be almost as dangerous as falling out of an airplan

Falling in love is, by its very nature, short-lived.  Hardly any human endeavor begins with such high expectations and then fails so frequently as falling in love.  If falling is the only thing that happens, irritations, disappointments, frustrations, and boredom soon take over.  Unfortunately, many people make life-shaping decisions based on falling in love. The experience of falling is exciting, but the landing can be tragic unless you have an open parachute.

The Greek word eros describes the initial feeling of falling in love. The Greek word agape identifies the parachute. It is the love that lasts.

Agape is the Greek word used in the Bible to describe faithful, committed love. The Apostle Paul defines agape as the love that “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” He adds, “Love never fails.” Agape is not a feeling. It is a decision, an act of the will.

I was driving on a back road several years ago when I saw a fragrant autumn clematis in full bloom.  It grew at a forty-five-degree angle and gave the impression that it was supporting a power pole.  Of course, hidden by the gorgeous flowering vine was a strong steel cable.  The relationship between eros and agape is like that of the flowering vine and the steel cable.  Agape, the strong, sturdy trellis of committed love, endures in the hottest drought of summer and holds steady through the icy cold of winter.  It bears all things and never fails.  If the trellis of agape is in place, the fragrant flower of eros has something on which to cling. It can grow more beautiful year after year, even in the autumn of life.  Both eros and agape represent essential dimensions of love in a healthy marriage.  One enables us to fall in love; the other enables us to stay in love.

Many of us have heard the story of Russian dissident Alexei Navalny. He has opposed Russian President Vladimir Putin. Russian agents allegedly poisoned Navalny. He was treated in Germany and returned to Russia, where he was immediately arrested. At his trial last week, he was sentenced to prison. As he was escorted from the courtroom, he turned and looked through the glass in the door. He made eye contact with Yulia, his wife and their two young children. He formed the shape of a heart with his hands. Then with his finger, he drew a heart on the fogged glass.  These were not trite gestures of love. These were the ways of communicating a deeply committed love to the people most dear to him.

A young couple stands at the altar to repeat their marriage vows: “To have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until death do us part.” These young people have almost no idea what they are pledging to each other. Those who witness their vows know they will not always feel love toward each other.  The vital question is this: are they committed to love each other whether they feel love or not?  If that commitment is strong, the exhilaration they experience on their wedding day will be a part of their relationship for many years to come. Valentine’s Day can be memorable for them year after year.

An elderly couple sits in a hospital room, hand in hand, one at the bedside of the other.  They gaze into each other’s eyes, both knowing that before long, one will leave the other in the separation of death. “I love you,” he whispers. “I love you, too,” she responds.  They exchange this simple reassurance they have shared many times for nearly sixty years.  Their love is not a capricious feeling.  It is strong and sturdy, profoundly committed, and unfailing. 

Their love is a love that lasts, and it is beautiful.

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

He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com

SCOUT’S HONOR

February 6, 2021

Note to readers: During these difficult days for many people, Clare and I have been considering 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. This week, please volunteer or donate, as you are able, to The Palmetto Council, Boy Scouts of America, 420 South Church Street Extension, Spartanburg, South Carolina 29306, (864) 585-4391.

As I penned these words, I listened to a Norfolk Southern freight train rumbling along the tracks that run behind our home. I am told that, including the shifters, eighteen trains each day travel the steel rails adjacent to our property. For me, these passing trains bring back memories of a trip I took when I was sixteen years old.

In July 1960, duffel bag in hand, I ascended the steps of a railroad car to embark on an adventure that changed my life. I traveled with a troop of Scouts and leaders from Spartanburg, Cherokee, and Union counties. Our troop, along with a second troop from York, Lancaster, and Chester counties, made up the contingent representing the Palmetto Council. The locomotive whistle signaled the beginning of our long journey to the site of the Fifth National Scout Jamboree in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

We rode in a day car on the Carolina Special up the Saluda Grade through Asheville to Cincinnati, where we joined another train.  Once we reached Chicago our day car joined a train called the Jamboree Special. Picnic tables were lined down the center of the cattle cars that serve as our dining hall. We were herded into those cars and fed box lunches, preparing us to eat our own cooking once we arrived at the Jamboree.

From July 22 until July 29, 1960, a city of tents was pitched on 1,000 acres of ranch land eight miles north of Colorado Springs. Our spacious campsite was at the base of Pike’s Peak which towers more than twice the height of Mount Mitchell in North Carolina. Representing twenty-six countries, 56,377 Boy Scouts officially registered for the event. More than 200,000 visitors came to Jamboree City, making it the fourth-largest town in Colorado for those two weeks.

Twenty-eight hundred tons of food transported in ninety-seven boxcars supplied the hungry Scouts. We consumed 21,000 loaves of bread and 2,183 gallons of milk every day. Each night, on 16,380 open charcoal fires, Scouts, organized into patrols, cooked their own supper at the same time.

The Boy Scout movement was founded in England in 1907 by Lord Robert Baden-Powell. The founder’s son, Robert Baden-Powell II, attended the 1960 Jamboree as an honored guest.  He recognized the jubilee year, the fiftieth anniversary, of the Boy Scouts of America chartered in 1910 by the United States Congress.  

As we hiked across the grassland to the opening show, the Blue Angels, the United States Navy’s flight demonstration squadron, performed amazing aeronautical stunts in the sky above us. The twists and turns of those synchronized jets soaring against the backdrop of the Rocky Mountains took out breath away. That night the popular teenage Lennon Sisters treated us with a concert. They were followed by the largest fireworks display I had ever seen.

During the Jamboree I witnessed my first rodeo. I knew then that bull riding and saddle bronco riding were not for me. I would rather work at the lumberyard back home.

Several celebrities visited the Jamboree during the week.  James Arness was a hero to many boys. He played the part of Marshall Matt Dillon in the television show, Gunsmoke. He was a big hit among the scouts.      

President Dwight David Eisenhower, who arrived on the final day, traveled with his motorcade through the entire camp. Wearing a white suit and a yellow Jamboree neckerchief, he stood in the back of a new Lincoln Continental convertible.  At one point in the parade the car stopped, allowing the President to walk over to the Scouts lining the road and shake hands. An Eagle Scout, I had been elected Senior Patrol Leader of my Jamboree troop, so I was assigned to the front row. When I shook Ike’s hand, I looked into his eyes and said only, “Mr. President.” It was my first and only time to speak to a President.

At the closing show, the western cowboy singing group, The Sons of the Pioneers, entertained us.  Later, the humorist Herb Shriner invited any Scout who had a harmonica to play with him. He, along with 300 or so Scouts, played “Home Sweet Home.”

The Jamboree closed that night with a candle lighting ceremony. More than fifty thousand of us repeated the Scout Oath together, dedicating ourselves to do our duty to God and our country. Thousands of Scouts, raising their right hand in Scout’s honor and holding thousands of lighted candles, pledged to make the world a better place.

On that last evening, I walked to the top of a grassy hill overlooking the Jamboree campsite. I had previously attended numerous Scouting events, but that vantage point allowed me to envision the enormous impact Scouting could make in this world.

On our return trip back to South Carolina, our troop traveled a southern route through New Mexico. I had slept well in my tent on the Colorado grassland. That night back on the Southern day coach, however, I was uncomfortable. The next morning, Saturday, I was congested with a summer cold. The dramatic drop in elevation as we traveled overnight had forced fluid into my left ear. By the time the train pulled into Dallas, Texas, I had developed a throbbing earache.

Our troop was scheduled for a tour of Dallas. It included a meeting with Miss Texas at the Dr. Pepper bottling company.  Instead, I opted to try to find a physician to treat my painful earache. I agreed to meet the troop back at the railroad station at the designated time.

I found a physician’s office building several blocks from the train station. I walked the hallways, searching for help. Because it was the weekend, the offices were closed, but finally, I heard a typewriter on the fourth floor. A few moments after I knocked on the locked door, a physician appeared.

Surprised to see a Scout in uniform, he asked, “Can I help you?”

I explained that I had attended the National Jamboree, that we were traveling by train back home to South Carolina, and that I had a terrible earache.

“Come in and let’s take a look,” he said.

As he examined me, he laughed, “I do not usually do this kind of medicine. I’m an Ob/Gyn. It’s been a long time since I looked in a patient’s ear.”

The doctor confirmed that my ear was indeed infected and offered to give me a shot of penicillin.

After explaining that I had very little money but that I would send a payment to him when I returned to Spartanburg, he asked, “Scout’s honor?”

I raised my hand in the Scout sign and pledged, “Yes, sir. Scout’s honor.”

I learned that the doctor himself was an Eagle Scout.

Back at the train station, I met my troop for our trip to New Orleans. Imagine my disappointment when I found out that I missed out on a free Dr. Pepper while I was getting a shot.

We boarded the Southern Crescent for the ride home to the Hub City.

The Boy Scouts of America is celebrating a birthday this week, on February 8. It’s a good time to remember the important difference Scouting can make. In 1960, more than 5,000,000 boys were Scouts in America; today, more than 30,000,000 Americans have been members of the Scout movement.

In recent years, scouting has suffered from many revelations of sexual abuse. The organization’s problems have paled in comparison to the human pain caused by these abuses for young people and adults alike. The Boy Scouts of America is diligently trying to make amends.  

In May of 2020, the Boy Scouts of America issued one of many statements on this problem.

“First and foremost, we care deeply about all victims of child abuse and sincerely apologize to anyone who was harmed during their time in Scouting,” the statement read. “We are outraged that there have been times when individuals took advantage of our program to abuse innocent children.”

The organization has put in place strong youth protection policies. These efforts do not excuse past atrocities. They do indicate a genuine desire to reestablish the moral values of scouting.

Scouting continues to make a significant difference in the lives of America’s youth and in the future of our country. I am proud to have been a part of the organization for sixty-four years. I am grateful that our children and grandchildren have experienced character development, leadership skills, and scouting outdoor adventures.

By the way, the Dallas doctor that I saw so many years ago did send a bill to our home in Spartanburg. A Star Scout himself, my dad sent a check to him. Dad also knew the meaning of Scout’s honor.

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

He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com

PIANO LESSONS

January 30, 2021

Note to readers: During these difficult days for many people, Clare and I have been considering 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. This week, please volunteer or donate, as you are able, to The Bethlehem Center, which is dedicated to strengthening families, 397 Highland Avenue, Spartanburg, South Carolina 29306, (864) 582-7158.

When I was a boy, my mother decided that I should take piano lessons. My teacher was Mrs. Ruff. She lived in the big house across highway 56 from Cooperative School. I was a student in that school. Mr. E. P. Todd was my principal. Now that school has moved to Old Canaan Road and is named for Mr. Todd.

Mrs. Ruff’s home was the historic Foster’s Tavern.  Anthony Foster began construction of the building in 1801. The house took seven years to complete. The old home is made of hand-thrown bricks. It features chimneys at each end of a gable roof and beautiful hand-carved woodwork, including bowed mantels and stair scrollwork, windowpanes of blown glass, soapstone hearths, and cattle-hair plaster. It is the oldest brick home in Spartanburg, South Carolina. The portico with its semicircular fanlight above the door was added in 1845 and the porches about 1915.

Foster’s Tavern was a regular stop for John C. Calhoun, Vice President (1825 -1832)  and United States Senator (1832-1850).  Located along a well-traveled stagecoach route between Columbia and Fort Hill, South Carolina, Calhoun stayed so frequently that he had his own bedroom on the second floor. Bishop Francis Asbury, founder of the Methodist Church in South Carolina, recorded in his diary in 1810 that he also found lodging here.

The imposing home held more fascination for me than Mrs. Ruff’s upright studio piano. Mrs. Ruff was obsessed with scales. Week after week, I struggled to hammer out the boring notes of scales. I did learn to play “Happy Birthday” and “Home on the Range,” but that was pretty much on my own.

After only a few weeks, I was confronted with a decision. I attended my weekly lesson with a jammed thumb and finger on my right hand. Mrs. Ruff examined my black and blue hand and asked, “What did you do?”

“I snagged a line drive with my bare hand,” I explained.

“You did what?”

“I caught a baseball with my right hand.”

She looked at me as if I were speaking a foreign language. “Kirk, you cannot play baseball and the piano.”

“How about football and basketball?”

“If you are going to play the piano, you need to protect your hands.”

“Yes, ma’am,” I said.

That was my last piano lesson.

As I recall, each of our children took piano lessons. Sooner or later, they all played “Arabesque,” a tune that became so monotonous that I called it the recital piece from hell.

Betsy took lessons longer than any of our sons, and she practiced.  She still sits down at the keys to unwind after a stressful day, and she plays for her family.

Now, Clare and I have grandchildren who are playing the piano. We’ll see how that works out.

On the radio last week, I heard a familiar song. As often happens, when I get a tune in my head, it lingers throughout the day.  This piece was written and recorded by Billy Joel. The song, “Piano Man,” brought to mind a story I remembered from sixteen years earlier.

On April 7, 2005, the police picked up an unidentified man as he wandered the streets of Kent, in England. Dressed in a suit and tie, he was soaking wet. He was unresponsive to their questions, remaining silent. The police took him to Medway Maritime Hospital.

He was presented a pen and paper by the hospital staff, hoping he would write his name. Instead, he drew a detailed sketch of a grand piano. When they took him to a piano, he played music of various types, ranging from Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s classical music to pop tunes by The Beatles. He played for four hours.

He was admitted to the psychiatric unit and dubbed the Piano Man by the hospital staff.

The name given to the troubled man came from lyrics of the song by Billy Joel.

Sing us a song, you’re the piano man.
Sing us a song tonight.
Well, we’re all in the mood for a melody,
And you’ve got us feeling alright.

The name, Piano Man, might also apply to Heinrich, born in February 1797, in the Black Forest area of Germany.  Most of the men in his family were woodcutters.  When the French invaded Germany, Heinrich’s father and older brothers went to war while his mother fled to the mountains with the younger children.  When the father and brothers returned after a cold winter, they found that the mother and younger children had died.  Only young Heinrich had survived.

Heinrich worked with his father and brothers as a woodcutter.  One day in the forest, they were caught in a violent thunderstorm.  The small shelter where they found refuge was struck by lightning and destroyed by fire. Heinrich’s father and brothers died.  At the age of fifteen, he was the lone survivor in his family.

Heinrich learned the art of making stringed musical instruments.  After becoming the organist of the village church, he developed an interest in making pianos. As a wedding gift, he gave his bride, Juliane, the first piano he made with his own hands.  

When his fledgling piano business failed, he immigrated to America with his wife and seven children.  He and his sons found work in various piano factories in New York City and started their own business in 1853.  Ten years later, Heinrich Steinweg changed his name legally to Henry Steinway. 

To this day, Steinway pianos are made almost entirely by hand.  Making a Steinway piano is a little like giving birth to a baby.  Each piano takes nine months to craft. No two are the same. More than 400 workers follow Henry Steinway’s meticulous piano-making technique, carefully assembling more than 12,000 parts.  Every key and each hammer are repeatedly checked and balanced. Eighteen layers of hard maple wood are laminated together to fashion the curved rim. 

The Steinway Company holds numerous patents for piano design, including a one-piece, cast-iron piano plate and over-stringing technique, which refers to arranging the strings inside the case in a crisscrossed pattern allowing for longer strings, greater tension, and therefore greater volume.  Before a Steinway piano is shipped, it is tuned nine times. 

Henry Steinway, the great-grandson of the founder, says Steinway defines itself as the world’s finest piano maker and as a patron of the arts. Years ago, the company invited pianists to come in and try the pianos. Piano makers listened to the musicians’ comments and made improvements to the instruments.

The company realized the mutual benefits of sponsoring artists. From the early days, Steinway has encouraged musicians to use the Steinway piano, and thereby developed cultural institutions like the New York Philharmonic.

The Steinway Company has brought some of the world’s great pianists to America.  Vladimir Horowitz, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Arthur Rubinstein, and Jan Paderewski are among the most famous.  Steinway artists include Van Cliburn and Billy Joel.    The Steinway Company wants their pianos to be played.  Any visitor to Steinway Hall in New York City may sit down to play. 

Wishing to encourage her young son’s interest in the piano, a mother took her boy to a Paderewski concert at Steinway Hall.  After they were seated, the mother spotted a friend in the audience and walked down the aisle to greet her. Seizing the opportunity to explore the concert hall, the young boy left his seat and made his way through a stage door. 

The house lights dimmed. The concert was about to begin. The mother returned to her seat and discovered that her child was missing. The stage curtains parted. Spotlights focused on the impressive Steinway Grand Piano. 

Horrified, the mother saw her son sitting at the keyboard, innocently picking out “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” 

At that moment, Paderewski made his sweeping entrance. Quickly moving to the piano, he whispered in the boy’s ear, “Don’t quit. Keep playing.” 

Then leaning over, the master pianist reached down with his left hand and began filling in a bass part to the boy’s simple tune. Soon his right arm reached around to the other side of the child as he added a running treble counterpoint.  Together, the old master and the young boy transformed an awkward situation into a creative experience. The audience was mesmerized.

It is an important message of hope, a word of encouragement for every person in a difficult circumstance. 

“Don’t quit. Keep at it.”

I stopped playing the piano. I occasionally sit down on the bench next to a grandchild and play the bass part of “Heart and Soul.” That is a real joy.

Foster’s Tavern is now the residence of good friends. Just as when I was a boy, there are persistent rumors of ghostly sounds in the old house, albeit those of friendly spooks.

I wonder if those faint echoes may be the distant notes of an old piano where a young kid struggles to play scales. I didn’t stick with the piano, and it didn’t help my athletic endeavors one bit.

The message of the master is one of encouragement and hope, especially for these COVID times.

“Don’t quit. Keep at it.” You are not alone.

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

He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com