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THE ELEVENTH HOUR OF THE ELEVENTH DAY OF THE ELEVENTH MONTH

November 8, 2020

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 Upstate Warrior Solution, 101 West St. John Street, Suite 17, Spartanburg, South Carolina 29306, (864) 520-2073.

Five of my uncles served our country during World War II. Two were in the Navy, two were in the Army Air Corps, and one was in the regular Army. Uncle Buzz was in the Normandy invasion. Uncle Bill was assigned to the Pacific. Two were in bombers that were shot down over Germany. Uncle Bury parachuted into Switzerland. Uncle David was taken as a prisoner of war.  Uncle Robert endured the harsh life of an infantryman and then was captured as a prisoner of war. From these uncles, I learned a significant truth. In war, there are no soldiers without wounds.

Mark Twain wrote, “The patriot is a scarce man, and brave, and hated, and scorned. When his cause succeeds, the timid join him, for then it costs nothing to be a patriot.”

This profound quote from a great humorist speaks an important truth. November 11, Veterans Day, soldiers and the citizens join in a time of remembrance. Elmer Davis said, “This nation will remain the land of the free only so long as it is the home of the brave.”

November 11 is designated as a day of gratitude for the brave.

On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918, an armistice ending World War I between Germany and the Allied nations went into effect. The treaty signed at Rethondes, France, ushered in an era of peace.

In 1919, President Wilson proclaimed that Armistice Day, November 11, should be “filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory.” There were parades and public meetings.  Business activities were briefly suspended at 11:00 A.M.

In 1926, the United States Congress declared that the armistice’s anniversary should be commemorated with prayer and thanksgiving. The flag of the United States was to be displayed on all Government buildings. On November 11, observances were to be held in schools and churches, or other suitable places.

This day was initially intended to honor veterans of World War I.  In 1954, after World War II, by an Act of Congress, November 11 became a day to honor all American veterans. The day became Veterans Day. 

Traditionally a two-minute silence is observed on November 11. It is two minutes well spent because we too easily take for granted the very things that most deserve our gratitude.

My cousin, Jim Hudson, a retired Army Captain, shared an event in his military experience that gave me an important reminder. T^hose who serve our country, even in times of peace and in places that are not war zones, can suffer tragedy in the line of duty.

On Thursday, December 12, 1985, a DC-8 charter flight carrying 248 passengers and a crew of eight crashed just after takeoff from Gander International Airport, Newfoundland.  All onboard perished.  The resulting fire, fed by contents of the stricken aircraft’s full fuel tanks, took firefighters 30 hours to extinguish.

The passengers of the ill-fated flight were United States Army soldiers.  All but twelve were members of the 3rd Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division.  Captain Terry Rains, a helicopter pilot, was one who died.

The tragedy at Gander ranks as the worst military air disaster during peacetime in our nation’s history. Thirty-five years later, Jim still remembers.  It wasn’t just that soldiers had died.  A seasoned soldier learns to expect an empty chair at the table.  But for Jim, this was personal.  These brothers in arms wore the Screaming Eagle patch of the 101st on their left shoulder, just as Jim did.

Terry was Jim’s next-door neighbor at Fort Campbell, Kentucky.  Rhonda, Terry’s wife, asked Jim to escort her husband’s body; to take him home to Tahlequah, Oklahoma, with the respect and dignity due to a fallen comrade.

Jim accompanied Terry’s body from the Mortuary Affairs Unit, Dover Air Force Base, Delaware, to Washington, D.C., to Dallas, Texas, to Tulsa, Oklahoma.  Each time the casket was loaded or unloaded from the hold of the airplane, Jim was required to oversee the transfer.  Jim stood on the tarmac and saluted, giving proper military courtesy.

In Tulsa, Jim met the representative from the funeral home.  Airport personnel uncrated and placed the casket on a gurney.  An American flag was draped over the coffin.  Jim saluted, then helped load Terry’s casket into the hearse.  He saw two older men, perhaps veterans, remove their work caps, holding them over their hearts. Jim was deeply moved.

On the day of the funeral, Jim met with Terry’s parents, Rhonda, and the children.  Together they went to the graveside.  An officer, who had encouraged Terry to enlist, presented Rhonda with the flag and a beret bearing Terry’s medals.  From a hill on the other side of the cemetery, a lone bugler sounded “Taps.”  Those familiar notes, drifting above the garden of stone, lingered briefly.  Jim, overcome with emotion, was finally able to weep for his friend.

In a Farewell Address to a joint meeting of Congress in 1951, General Douglas MacArthur quoted the words of an old barracks song, “Old soldiers never die. They just fade away.”  But soldiers do die, and, among their comrades in arms, soldiers grieve, and grieve deeply.

Last week, I went with our daughter and her two children to Greenlawn Memorial Gardens to visit the grave of our son, Erik. It has been twenty years since Erik died.  While a tincture of time has healing power, a loved one’s death leaves a pain that lingers in the human heart. Erik was not a veteran, but he died as a young man. Clare and I are able to empathize with other parents who have lost young adult children much too soon, whether their loved one served in the military or not.

In the cemetery section where Erik is buried, several graves are marked with headstones that read NEELY. These are the plots of my grandparents, my parents, and other family members, including several uncles who were veterans. My granddaughters asked about these other deceased members of our family.

I told the stories of two. These uncles were men that I knew and loved. They were heroes in my mind. They seldom mentioned their military service. I probably have told more about their wartime experiences than they ever said. I think that the pain of memory must have been too great for them to say much about what happened to them.

Last week at Greenlawn, I had the chance to share with my granddaughters the stories of veterans. I am grateful for their service to this country and the legacy they have left for future generations.  

Veterans Day, Wednesday, November 11, is an opportunity for all of us to remember with gratitude those who have served in war and in peace. It is a time to be sure that our memories of them do not fade away.

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

PRAYER AND POLITICS

November 1, 2020

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 Spartanburg Soup Kitchen, 136 South Forest Street, Spartanburg, South Carolina 29306, (864) 585-0022.

This All Saints Day is also the Sunday before Election Day. I call to mind the words of Saint Paul. “The first thing I want you to do is pray. Pray every way you know how, for everyone you know. Pray especially for rulers and their governments to rule well so we can be quietly about our business of living simply, in humble contemplation. This is the way our Savior God wants us to live.” (I Timothy 2:1-3)

During the 2004 political campaign, Representative Doug Smith and his wife, Alison, hosted a visit to Spartanburg from Dick Cheney, the Vice President of the United States. Cheney was running for a second term with President George W. Bush. Doug was the Speaker of the South Carolina House of Representatives. He asked if I would offer the prayer on that occasion.  I had to think about his request for a while.  An invitation to pray at a political gathering poses a real danger. The Fourth of the Ten Commandments specifically forbids using the name of God in a self-serving way.  “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God” (Exodus 20:7). I did not want to violate the commandment for the sake of formality. 

The novel Cold Mountain tells the story of a soldier from North Carolina who fought for the Confederacy.  In a conversation with a pastor before leaving for the war, he reflected, “I think the Almighty must grow weary of being called down for both sides.”  I agree.  God must grow weary when called upon to favor one side over another in war or to bless one political party over another in an election year. 

I weighed the invitation from my friend Doug.  I usually do my best to avoid public political involvement, especially if I might be perceived as favoring one candidate over another.   The question that I asked myself was, “Would I also pray at a gathering of Democrats?”  My answer was, “Yes, I am willing to pray for anybody.” 

After I accepted Doug’s kind invitation, he told me of the many preparations for the Vice President’s visit.  He explained that my Social Security number, my driver’s license number, and my date of birth had to be sent to Washington so that some official agency – the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Secret Service, or Homeland Security – could clear me. I hope that my congregation at the time was greatly relieved to know that Washington approved me.

Doug further explained, “You will have to write out your prayer.  I need to fax it to the White House.” 

I wrote a prayer very much like the one I say at mealtime in our home.  In my prayer, which consisted of five sentences, I asked that God help us have the humility to be servants and that we would understand that divine blessings are not favors bestowed to us over others, but blessings given to us so that we can be a blessing to the people around us.  I kept in mind the admonition of Jesus: “When you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words” (Matthew 6:7).  The White House approved my prayer, just as I wrote it.

On the day of the Vice President’s visit, I made hospital rounds as usual before driving to Doug and Alison’s home.  Because of the many law enforcement officers and barricades, I found myself explaining over and over again, to people in uniform, that I was the pastor who was supposed to offer the prayer at the meal.  Security officers passed information back and forth over radios and walkie-talkies and checked the license plate on my car before they allowed me to get closer to the gathering. 

When I arrived at the Smith home, I was told, “Dr. Neely, you need to stand as close to the podium in the tent as you can.  We will call on you when it is time to pray.”  I took my position as instructed.

I had orders to stay near the speaker’s stand, and for the nearly forty-five minutes that the guests waited, I spoke to many friends in the crowd.  The food looked delicious – shrimp and grits, iced tea, peach cobbler with ice cream – but I could not get to it.  I had not given any money to attend this fundraiser.  I was there to pray, but I did want a plate of shrimp and grits.  I stayed in my assigned position. 

Suddenly, a hubbub of activity caught our attention.  The two men posted near the podium started whispering into their fountain pens.  I noticed an almost invisible wire coming out of their ears.  Then eight more men took up positions, instructing the crowd to move back five feet behind a railing. 

One said to me, “Sir, you need to move back.” 

I said, “I am going to offer the prayer.” 

He said, “Sir, move back, but stay right here so I can see you.” 

I did as I was told. 

Doug and Alison Smith came and stood by me as more Secret Service agents took their positions in a choreographed movement.  David Wilkins, the head of the Republican Party for South Carolina, led a brief Republican pep rally.  Then the Vice President’s daughter, who had given birth to a baby only five weeks before, introduced her father. 

Vice President Cheney reminded me of a professor I had in seminary.  When Dick Cheney spoke, he leaned forward on the platform.  I am sure he was exhausted, but he spoke at some length. 

Doug Smith whispered to me, “This is like a Baptist sermon.” 

I chuckled, “The offering is better here.”  

At the conclusion of the Vice President’s speech, agents moved in formation.  Suddenly, Mr. Cheney was gone.

Surprised, Doug Smith turned to me and asked, “Did you pray?” 

“Doug, did you speak?”

He responded, “What happened to the Pledge of Allegiance?”

Apparently, the Vice President had fallen behind schedule and his staff decided to cut the agenda.  The Pledge of Allegiance, my prayer, and Doug Smith’s comments were omitted. 

My friend Representative Lanny Littlejohn stayed behind with me after the Vice President left.  “I am glad you are here,” he said.

“I came to pray,” I explained.

He mused, “I must have missed that.”   

We joked about it as we helped ourselves to shrimp and grits, still warm and delicious.

As I was leaving, I thanked Doug and Alison for their hospitality.  Doug apologized, but no apology was necessary.  I did pray, just not audibly.

The very next week, former Congresswoman Liz Patterson called, inviting me to pray at a fundraiser at Cleveland Park for the Democratic Party.  “We will let you pray,” she assured me.  “You won’t even have to get your prayer approved by the White House.”

I accepted Liz’s kind invitation.  Again, I enjoyed being with many friends as I enjoyed a delicious meal of Southern barbeque.  Just as Doug Smith had so graciously yielded his time to the Vice President three weeks earlier, three local candidates yielded their time to senatorial candidate Inez Tennenbaum.  A petite woman with a strong presence, she reminded me of one of my favorite schoolteachers.

At the Democratic fundraiser, I did pray.  Liz Patterson had told me my prayer did not have to be approved by Washington, but it was.  I used the same prayer I had written for the Republicans. When I announced that to the crowd, they all got a good laugh.

I am neither Democrat nor Republican. I identify as an Independent.  I have good friends in both of the major political parties.  All candidates for political office have strengths and weaknesses.  The right to vote is our most important civic responsibility. Prayer is our most important spiritual responsibility. For people off faith, preparation for Election Day, November 3, begins with prayer. Prayer must be followed by the commitment to vote. Our prayers are not attempts to persuade the Almighty to bestow favor on one political party or another. We are not trying to help God see things our way.  Our prayers are for divine guidance as we choose those who will serve.

This passage from Hebrew scripture comes to mind.

If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land. (II Chronicles 7:14)

Words from a patriotic hymn written by Irvin Berlinbecome our prayer.

God bless America,

Land that I love,

Stand beside her, and guide her

Through the night with a light from above.

From the mountains, to the prairies,

To the oceans, white with foam

God bless America, My home sweet home

God bless America, My home sweet home.

Amen.

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

MARK TWAIN AND THE ELECTION

October 24, 2020

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 Greater Spartanburg Ministries, 680 Asheville Highway, Spartanburg, South Carolina 29303, (864) 585-9371.

For three Tuesday nights last October, I taught the Citizenship in the Nation merit badge to a dozen or so Scouts. To earn this award, these young Americans must read and discuss the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution. The merit badge emphasizes our rights and our responsibilities as American citizens. One is the privilege and the duty to vote.

Mark Twain (1835-1910) is reported to have said, “Democracy is being allowed to vote for the candidate you dislike least.”  

My grandfather admired Mark Twain and quoted the famous writer often. Someone asked Pappy who he was going to vote for in an upcoming presidential election.  His comment was, “I’ve hardly ever been able to vote for anybody.  I almost always have to vote against somebody.”  

An important election is approaching. This contest is, of course, quite serious, yet, as are all political events, it is, in some ways, comical. The professional comedians of America have always played a significant role in the campaigns that precede any election. This year candidates for President and Vice President have been the subjects of stand-up routines. Most have been spoofed on talk shows. “Saturday Night Live” features regular impersonations of both Democrats and Republicans.  Comedy has been a significant factor as voters make their decisions, not only this year but also throughout our history.

Beginning in the year 2000, Time magazine published a special issue. In the past, “The Making of America” series focused on Lewis and Clark, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy. The seventh annual issue featured Mark Twain, the first American writer to achieve fame usually accorded presidents and generals.

Writing for Time in an article in 2008, Roy Blount, Jr. called Mark Twain our original American superstar. Like current humorists, Stephen Colbert, Samantha Bee, Jimmy Fallon, Tracy Morgan,  Jimmy Kimmel, Amy Poehler,  Seth Myers, Trevor Noah, Maya Rudolf, Michael Che, Keenan Thompson, Bowen Yang, Julia Louis-Dreyfuss, and James Corden, Mark Twain also helped the folks of his day laugh at serious issues.

Roy Blount was quick to remind us that this stinging satire is not new. Ernest Hemingway said all modern American literature could be traced back to Mark Twain. With his white suit, cigar, disheveled hair, and bushy mustache, Twain was the first true political comedian, the master of one-liners. “Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated,” he said after his obituary mistakenly appeared in the New York Journal.

“As it happens, many of the issues of our day were also the issues of Twain’s day,” wrote Blount, “and he addressed them as eloquently as anyone has since.”

Andrew Carnegie once said to Mark Twain that America is a Christian nation. “Why, Carnegie,” Twain answered, “so is Hell.”

Twain had a talent for detecting hypocrisy. His irreverence could be edgy. While it was funny, it was unsettling.

The motto “In God We Trust” first appeared on United States coins in 1864. Mark Twain was 29 years old at the time.  Three years before Twain’s death in 1910, President Teddy Roosevelt shocked the nation by declaring that “In God We Trust” should be removed from United States coins because they “carried the name of God into improper places.”

In conversation with Andrew Carnegie, Twain quipped that “In God We Trust” was a fine motto, “simple, direct, gracefully phrased; it always sounds well – In God We Trust. I don’t believe it would sound any better if it were true.”

Mark Twain came from America’s heart.  He made Americans laugh, especially at themselves.

In the special edition of Time that featured Twain, Richard Lacayo wrote of an exchange between Twain and the British poet and culture critic Matthew Arnold. After making two visits to the United States to observe American customs, Arnold eventually wrote his impressions in the book Civilization in the United States.

Troubled by the way Americans appeared to lack any capacity for reverence toward those in authority, Arnold wrote, “If there be a discipline in which the Americans are wanting, it is the discipline of awe and respect.”

One institution of American life that struck Arnold as improper was what he called “the addiction to the funnyman, who is a national misfortune there.” Six years earlier, he had attacked in his writings the most famous American funnyman of all, Mark Twain.

Offended by Arnold’s words, Twain prepared a reply.  Though never published, it includes the single best one-line defense of how a democratic society works. “A discriminating irreverence,” he wrote, “is the creator and protector of human liberty.”

Lacayo wrote of Twain, “He was plain speaking and had the kind of deadly wit that could cut through the cant and hypocrisy surrounding any topic, no matter how sensitive: war, sex, religion, even race. Twain was righteous without being pious, angry for all the right reasons, and funny in all the right ways. You might say he gave virtue a good name.”

Tuesday, November 3, is Election Day.  By almost anyone’s estimation, we will again see closely contested races in many quarters. Some older Americans voting this year will remember when the United States learned that every vote matters. Harry Truman narrowly won the office of president in 1948.  

I am awaiting the end of the campaign.  Most of the country is ready to decide and then to move forward.  We have all experienced an overload of rhetoric.  

Mark Twain understood how important it is for people of faith to vote. Again, criticizing people of faith, Twain wrote in the September 2, 1904, edition of Collier’s, “If more Americans could be persuaded to vote, it would bring about a revolution that would be incalculably beneficent.  It would save the country.”

Until Election Day, I am going to try to become a more informed citizen. I am going to pray pretty much without ceasing. I am also going to laugh at all the jokes and impersonations that are funny. I intend to do the same beyond November 3, no matter who is elected.

On Election Day in years past, Clare and I ate a good breakfast. We prayed for this country and our leaders at every level. We then drove out in the county to our voting place, a picturesque old schoolhouse in Whitestone, South Carolina. We waited patiently for our turn, being grateful if there was a large voter turnout. Once behind a curtain, I made my selection, keeping whom I cast my vote for, or against, to myself. It is, after all, a secret ballot.

This year, Clare and I voted by mail. We sat down together at our dining room table and had a brief prayer before marking our ballots. Though I don’t know how she voted, I imagine that we agreed on some things and differed on others. We respect the secret ballot. I am grateful for this country and the freedom to vote.

I learned long ago that prayer and humor are first cousins. We pray, and we laugh about what is most important in our lives. So, I intend to approach this critical election with a prayer in my heart and a smile on my face. I believe that both Mark Twain and the Almighty would approve.

The lyrics of “America, the Beautiful” are the words of my prayer.

America, America, God shed His grace on thee…

America, America, God shed his grace on thee…

America, America, God mend thine every flaw…

I will also enjoy the humor and the satire that will surely be part of these days ahead. The wisdom of the scriptures gives a remedy for stress.

“A cheerful heart is good medicine.” (Proverbs 17:22)

Humor is a natural tranquilizer, and, as far as I can tell, there are no harmful side effects.

The Scouts in my merit badge class are too young to vote. I am trying to teach them and our grandchildren to cherish this right and protect it for others. As always, the very best teaching is by example. I vote because I value freedom. I vote because I love this country. I vote because I see in the eyes of young Americans the hope for this country’s future.

Clare and I have already voted.  I would urge you to do the same.

Please vote. Please.

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