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January 19, 2019

The observance of the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on Monday will again give me an opportunity to reflect on my own journey in regard to the issue of racial justice. I share those reflections here.

Major Hugh Neely, my great-great-grandfather, was a portly man with red hair and a long, thick beard.  Growing up I thought that he was an officer in the Confederacy. I fancied him as a hero of the Civil War. However, I learned later from his octogenarian grandchildren that Major was his given name, not a military rank.

During the Civil War Major Hugh Neely taught school in Christiana, Tennessee, and served as postmaster in Fosterville, Tennessee.  He lived in a log cabin on the Shelbyville Pike.  He tried to join the Confederate Army on two occasions. He was originally denied enlistment because he was a schoolteacher.

As the war wore on, he tried again to enlist.  This time he was not accepted as a soldier because he could not see.  He was so cross-eyed he couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn with a shot from a rifle.

Though he was unable to shoot straight with a firearm, Major Hugh Neely had the reputation of being a straight shooter in his conversation. He would have signed on as a Confederate soldier, but Major Hugh Neely actually opposed slavery. He is reported to have said, “No person can own another person.”

Others on my family tree had no such conviction.

Another of my great-grandfathers was Moses Sanders Haynsworth of Darlington, South Carolina. He was the first cousin of Tuck Haynsworth. Both were Citadel cadets when the Civil War began. Tuck Haynsworth fired the third cannon against the Union ship Star of the West in the opening battle of the war. The ship was attempting to resupply Fort Sumter, the Union stronghold in Charleston Harbor. During the war, the Haynsworth plantation, having five hundred slaves, was converted in order to manufacture boots and saddles for Confederate troops.

Born and reared in Spartanburg County, I remember segregated water fountains and restrooms, clearly marked WHITE and COLORED.  As a boy, I gave this blatant expression of inequality little thought. It was just a way of life in the South.

After graduation from high school in 1962, I had an opportunity to travel to Southern Rhodesia to visit my uncle and aunt who were serving as missionaries in Africa. In the country now known as Zimbabwe, I saw something that changed my mind about human relationships. I saw apartheid at work; I saw glaring discrimination in plain view.

When I returned to South Carolina, my eyes had been opened. I could then see the racial discrimination in the place that I loved, the place I called home.
I was cautious with this new insight, knowing instinctively that my changing opinions would not be well received among most family and friends. The Civil Rights Movement was spreading across the South. I had become aware, as never before, that all people are equal in the sight of God.
A young clergyman from Atlanta, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., led the cause for racial equality. Vilified by most people I knew, he was branded a troublemaker, a man who had forgotten his place.

Martin Luther King, Jr., inspired a nation to change largely through his riveting speeches. King’s skill with words powered his nonviolent battle for integration and equal rights.

During my freshman year in college, Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered a sermon entitled “Strength to Love.” Two statements he made in that sermon further molded my attitude about racial equality.  He said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” He went on to say, “Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”

In April of that same year, King was arrested in Birmingham, Alabama, following a peaceful protest against segregation. While in jail, King learned of statements made by eight white Alabama clergymen on April 12, 1963, which they entitled “A Call for Unity.” The pastors agreed that social injustices were occurring, but they argued that the battle against racial segregation should be fought solely in the courts, not taken into the streets.

King responded in an open letter written on April 16, 1963.  In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” he wrote that without direct action, civil rights could never be achieved. As he put it, “This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’” King’s letter further declared, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” King also quoted the words of the first African-American Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall, “Justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

On August 28, 1963, just before my sophomore year at Furman, Martin Luther King, Jr., standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial, acknowledged, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” His speech entitled “I Have a Dream” is his best known and was delivered to an estimated 250,000 civil rights marchers crowding the Mall in Washington, D.C.

The one and only time I saw Martin Luther King, Jr., in person was when he came to Louisville, Kentucky, while I was in seminary. On March 5, 1964, Dr. King, along with his brother, A.D. Williams King, a pastor in Louisville, led 10,000 people in a peaceful march for open housing. Several members of the faculty at Southern Seminary participated in the march. There, as an onlooker with a group of other seminary students, I saw Dr. King from a distance.

Later, in 1964, Dr. King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In that same year Martin Luther King, Jr., became the first black American to be honored as Time magazine’s Man of the Year.

On Thursday, Aril 4, 1968, just before Easter, Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. He had gone to Memphis to support striking sanitation workers.

Dr. Charles Bodie, then President of Peabody College in Nashville, Tennessee, was the guest preacher for Holy Week services at Crescent Hill Baptist Church, where Clare and I were members. We attended those services and will never forget how Dr. Bodie, a distinguished African-American preacher in his own right, began his sermon the night of King’s assassination.

Dr. Bodie had spoken with his adult son by telephone earlier in the day. His son was in despair over King’s death. Quoting Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Dr. Bodie lamented, “The times are out of joint.” He then declared, “The times have always been out of joint! They will always be out of joint! This is the world in which we must live.”

The times are still out of joint. The struggle to bring Dr. King’s dream to fulfillment continues.

Our nation will observe Dr. King’s birthday on Monday, January 21, 2019. On that day, I will read again his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail.” This is a time for all of us to heighten our vigilance and to renew our commitment to an American ideal expressed in our pledge to the flag. That is the national guiding principle of “liberty and justice for all.”



January 12, 2019

Several years ago I took a group of Boy Scouts who were working on the American Heritage merit badge to the Cowpens National Battlefield in northern Spartanburg County. For many, it was their first visit to the site. For me, it was a return trip to a place many in the Upstate of South Carolina take for granted. It is a place that proved to be a turning point of the American Revolutionary War. Many believe that the battle fought in the frozen red clay of Cowpens was the decisive engagement of the war.

Dramatic events led up to that fateful day – January 17, 1781.

By 1778-80, with a stalemate in the north, the British looked south with the goal of assisting Southern Loyalists in regaining control of colonial governments. They then planned to push north to crush the rebellion, estimating that many of the populace would rally to the English Crown.

The British captured Savannah on December 29, 1778, and then Charleston on May 12, 1780. General Cornwallis took command of the British campaign in the south. On August 16, 1780, he crushed the Southern Continental Army under General Horatio Gates at Camden in one of the bloodiest battles of the war. These victories bolstered British confidence, leading them to believe that they would soon control the entire south and that Loyalists would flock to their cause.

The British didn’t expect so much opposition in the backcountry. However, the Scots-Irish came to the American colonies with a chip on their shoulders. Already despising the British for injustices done to them in Northern Ireland, many had been forcibly taken from their homes in Scotland and moved to Ireland to industrialize the country. When their products had proven superior to those made in England, they were heavily taxed. When they came to America, British colonists pushed these Scots-Irish to the frontier to serve as a buffer against the Indians. In the backwoods, they learned to fire long rifles and to fight from ambush. Underestimating the Scots-Irish became an Achilles’ heel for the British.

Lord Cornwallis’ attempt to raise Loyalist support was thwarted when Patriot militia defeated a larger force of British Loyalists at the Battle of Kings Mountain on October 7, 1780. The men who had crossed the Appalachian Mountains to fight those British became known as the Overmountain Men. Read more…


January 5, 2019

I had two calendars side by side on a coffee table in our den. One, labeled 2018, was the calendar I used all of last year. The other, labeled 2019,  is my calendar for the new year.

Our teenaged grandson commented, “I guess its that time of year.”

“Yes,” I said. “Its time to break in a brand new calendar.”

He replied, “You know if you had a smartphone, you wouldn’t have to do that.”

“I’m just not smart enough for a smartphone,” I countered.

He laughed.

Several years ago, at just about this same time of year, our daughter and her family were packed and ready to depart on an early morning flight for Chicago. Clare was rocking our three-year-old granddaughter, saying goodbye. The little girl was sad to leave after a delightful Christmas here in the Upstate.

She said to Clare, “When we have time together we must savor every moment.”

We were all surprised at this profound truth spoken by our grandchild. “Out of the mouths of babes…” came to mind. Read more…


December 31, 2018

The Romans depicted Janus, the god of doors and gates, as a deity with two faces: one looking backward, the other looking forward.  The month of January in the Julian calendar was named for Janus. Janus characterizes all of us at this time of year.  We look back at the year that is ending. We look forward to the year ahead.

As a teenager, I remember that the last week of the year was the time to take inventory at our family’s lumberyard. Out of school for the holidays, I was available to help count fir and pine framing stacked on the yard, plywood in a warehouse, and molding and trim in the dark bins of a lumber shed.

The concept of a year-end inventory has stuck with me through the years. What have been some of the blessings of the past year? My personal list is always lengthy and includes family and friends. Every year has times of difficulty, to be sure, but even those present opportunities and reasons to be grateful.

We describe a new beginning as turning over a new leaf or starting with a clean slate.  This year a new calendar presents us with 365 new leaves and 365 clean slates.

Here is a story for the New Year that is worth repeating. Several years ago, I was headed out the door to a New Year’s Eve Watch Night communion service at the church.  We had entertained a houseful of teenagers in our home earlier in the evening. We had filled two large plastic trash bags with empty pizza boxes and discarded paper products. Clare asked if I would take the accumulated debris out of the house.  I stuffed the black bags into the trunk of my car and dashed to church in time for the service, delaying the dumping of the refuse.

Following the service, which ended past midnight, I drove home, completely forgetting about the unsavory cargo in the trunk of my vehicle.  New Year’s Day and the day after came and went.

On January 3, I opened my car door for the first time since very early New Year’s morning.  The three-day-old garbage made my vehicle smell like a sanitation truck. I had made a mistake that many of us make in our own personal lives. I had literally carried last year’s garbage into the New Year!

A new beginning calls for focusing on the blessings rather than on the difficulties of a year now past. We have the opportunity to dispose of last year’s emotional and spiritual garbage, leaving behind past hurts and grudges. Read more…


December 26, 2018

Is there anything as over as Christmas when it is over? Colorful wrapping paper and bright ribbons are reduced to trash as quickly as gifts are torn open. 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.  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!

In the week following Christmas, we may become preoccupied with returning and exchanging gifts, cleaning house, and paying bills. No wonder the days after Christmas mark a mood swing. The season to be jolly often dissolves into a time of exhaustion and despair. The days are shorter. There is less sunshine. The psychiatric community even has a name for the malaise – Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD.

The post-Christmas season can also be a time of blessed relief. For those who enjoy gardening, the mail carrier brings not only bills and tax forms, but also seed and plant catalogs.

The days between Christmas and New Year’s Day give us time for reflection on the year past and the year ahead. Opening a new calendar can be an opportunity to plan and organize by marking birthdays, anniversaries, vacations, and other special occasions. Stretching nonstop into the foreseeable future are bowl games for avid football fans.

December 26 is Boxing Day. It is primarily observed throughout the United Kingdom and former Commonwealth countries. In Ireland, it is called St. Stephen’s Day. In the English tradition, the day is a time to offer presents to the people upon whose service we depend all year, those who deliver our newspaper and our mail, bag and carry groceries for us, clean our offices, and service our automobiles, just to name a few.

The twelve days of Christmas include Boxing Day and end on Epiphany, January 6.  These twelve days after Christmas provide an opportunity to extend the holidays.

The song “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is based on this season of gift giving.  If we assume a partridge in a pear tree is given only on the first day and each of the other gifts is given only once, the monetary value in dollars at this writing would be in excess of $39,000.

However, the song implies that the gifts given each day are repeated on each of the remaining eleven days. By January 6, the recipient would have a total of twelve partridges and twelve pear trees.  By the twelfth day, the beloved would have received 376 gifts, including 184 birds.

The cumulative cost of the gifts is calculated annually by the economists at Pittsburgh National Corporation Wealth Management. It is an amusing and easily understandable explanation of how the country’s economy is faring.

Instead of sticking to the usual items like food, gasoline, and electricity that make up the federal Consumer Price Index, PNC tracks the cost of the Christmas carol’s more improbable list to explain how prices affect the economy.

The cost of buying your true love all the gifts from “The 12 Days of Christmas” rose just 1.2% this year.

The combined cost for the dozen gifts featured in the final verse of the famed Christmas carol totals $39,095 in 2018, up $198 from last year’s total.

This year, the prices of the six geese, seven swans, and other fowl rose because the country’s droughts and floods drove up the price of bird feed. The swans are almost always the highest ticket item on the list. Adult trumpeter swans cost almost $2000 each.

The five golden rings named in the song’s verses also cost significantly more than in years past. Higher demand for gold stems from an improving economy. So, too, is the wage scale for leaping lords, dancing ladies, pipers, and drummers.

Here is the breakdown of the cost of the items on the list.

  • One partridge in a pear tree: $220
  • Two turtle doves: $375
  • Three French hens: $182
  • Four calling birds: $600
  • Five gold rings: $750
  • Six geese-a-laying: $390
  • Seven swans-a-swimming: $13,125
  • Eight maids-a-milking: $58
  • Nine ladies dancing: $7,553
  • Ten lords-a-leaping: $10,000
  • Eleven pipers piping: $2804
  • Twelve drummers drumming: $3038

For Christmas 2018 the total price of all items on the list with all of their multiplications would be $ 170,610. (See

Before you actually make this your shopping list for your true love, consider for a moment where your beloved will keep, feed, and clean up after all of those birds.

Some Christians believe that the song was actually a catechism in disguise, used by English Catholic parents to teach their children during the time of Puritan rule in Britain.

  • The partridge in a pear tree represents the one true God.
  • The two turtledoves are the Old and New Testament.
  • The three French hens symbolize the Trinity.
  • The four calling birds are the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
  • Five golden rings are the first five books of the Bible, known as the Torah.
  • Six geese a-laying refer to the six days of creation.
  • Seven swans a-swimming are the seven sacraments.
  • Eight maids a-milking are the eight beatitudes.
  • Nine ladies dancing are the fruits of the Holy Spirit.
  • Ten lords a-leaping represent the Ten Commandments.
  • Eleven pipers piping are the eleven faithful apostles.
  • Twelve drummers drumming are the twelve doctrines in the Apostle’s Creed.

There is no historical evidence that the song was ever used in this way. Rather there is considerable evidence that this explanation is a recent invention.

All trivia aside, the twelve days after Christmas can have a deeper meaning.

A young father, a member of the congregation I served in North Carolina, was stricken by leukemia and hospitalized for several weeks just before Christmas. Because Stan’s immune system was compromised, his physician would not permit his two small children to visit their father.

When I visited with Stan on Christmas Day, his disease was in remission. He was looking forward to being discharged from the hospital. “We’re going to have Christmas when I get home,” he said in anticipation.

Stan left the hospital two days later. He and his wife gave each child one present every day for the next week or so. Spreading out the gifts conserved Stan’s energy and enabled the family to extend Christmas into the New Year. Sadly, Stan died later that same year.

One year, in early December, Stan’s daughter, an adult by then with children of her own, spoke with me.  “I remember that Christmas, the last one with my daddy, as the best one ever. Instead of the whole thing suddenly being over as it usually is, Christmas seemed to last and last.”

The twelve days after Christmas need not be a season of despair. In the afterglow of Christmas, joy and peace can accompany us into the New Year and beyond.

May it be so for each of you.


December 22, 2018

A little girl looked forward to her ninth birthday on December 24. For several years her parents had combined her birthday party with a Christmas Eve gathering in their home. As the only child in the family, the little girl assumed that the festivities were all for her.

Few people bothered to wish her a happy birthday, fewer still brought gifts.  Her beautifully decorated home was filled with partying adults. She thought that surely the guests had gathered in her honor.

Finally, the nine-year-old, feeling ignored and left out, shouted in frustration at the top of her lungs, “Hey, whose birthday is it anyway?”

The little girl’s question is one that we might well ask ourselves as we approach Christmas. Whose birthday is it anyway?

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 child in a feeding trough, a manger that we must seek anew each year.

The search began with the shepherds of Bethlehem. They were tending their flocks when all heaven broke loose. The sky erupted in light and in song. 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.

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.

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 Emperor Constantine, identified the site and ordered the construction of a church there. The Church of the Nativity was completed in 333 C.E.

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.  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 manger was missing. We don’t know what happened to it. We couldn’t find it anywhere.” Finding the manger is important for all of us who celebrate the birth of Jesus. Read more…


December 15, 2018

A friend recently asked, “What does keeping Christmas mean?”

I learned from internet research that keeping Christmas is an expression in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Though the phrase was certainly used in the Victorian era, the origin goes back at least to medieval times.

Keeping Christmas in the South recognizes the important role food plays in holiday festivities. The boulevards at many old plantations were lined with pecan trees. Each fall the nuts were gathered. When families sat together in rocking chairs or on joggling boards on the front porch, cracking and picking pecans was a pastime. Pecans were considered a delicacy and a staple. They were a favorite snack, roasted and salted, but they also were included in numerous recipes. My mother put them in apple salad, sweet potato soufflé, and banana bread. Pecan pie is the dessert of choice for a Southern Christmas.

Sweet potatoes were also a staple. Baked or candied, in casseroles, pies, or bread, yams were always a part of Christmas dinner. During the Great Depression, my grandmother frequently prepared sweet potatoes in three different ways for the same meal.

Southerners enjoy adding seafood to holiday fare. Oyster dressing was always a part of Christmas dinner in Clare’s home. We frequently include shrimp or scallops with our Christmas meal. For some families, crab cakes or she-crab soup is a prelude to the main course.

At the center of the table is a platter with the featured meat. This varies from family to family or from year to year. Favorites are tenderloin, wild goose, or a turkey, baked, smoked, or deep-fried in peanut oil. A Christmas ham is traditional for many Southern families. My grandmother soaked a cured ham in apple juice overnight to remove the salt. She rubbed it with an orange, studded it with cloves, and basted it with apple cider.

Side dishes included peas with pearl onions or green beans with almond slivers. Squash casserole, macaroni and cheese casserole, and pickled okra are often added to the feast.

And then there were the sweets! My mother was the queen of celebration. Her coconut cake, lemon squares, and Kentucky Colonel chocolate bourbon balls were enough to draw a crowd. One brother-in-law said that the Kentucky Colonels were sufficient reason to marry into the family.

Keeping Christmas meant savoring the smells of the season. The aroma of cedar elicits memories of my youth. I recall trudging through fields and woods on our old family farm with my dad, granddad, uncles, brothers, and cousins, searching for the perfect red cedar trees for Christmas. We gathered branches from holly trees, preferably with bright red berries. We shot mistletoe out of the tops of oak trees with a 22-rifle.

Mama preferred natural decorations mixing the collected greenery with citrus fruits to accent her garlands. Oranges studded with cloves gave holiday fragrance. Lemons, limes, and pineapples were added to centerpieces. Glossy magnolia leaves gave every decoration a distinctively Southern elegance.

Poinsettias, discovered and named by Greenville native Joel Poinsett, were featured in our home as in many others in Upstate South Carolina. A blaze in the fireplace added the smell of hardwood smoke to the crisp December air.

Our cedar Christmas tree was decorated with ornaments we had made as children as well as others that had survived years of handling and storage. Some were homemade; others were gifts from friends. Each one had a special meaning.

Our custom has been to keep some small gifts by our front door. If a visitor comes, we can offer a tasty treat. Gifts for family and friends can include homemade pound cake, cookies, or brownies. Jellies and jams, fruit and nuts are popular Southern gifts. Moravian sugar cake is an all-time favorite. One lady in Winston-Salem made the best pear preserves from the knotty little fruit that grew on a tree in her yard.

All of these traditions are a part of keeping Christmas. But there is more.

Keeping Christmas is about spending time with family and friends. The joy of swapping stories and singing together is a part of a Southern Christmas. A Southern Christmas should include more listening and less hastening.

My mother was adopted. In her new family, she had one older sister, whom she called Sister. It was only natural that my seven siblings and I should call this dear woman Aunt Sister. She was a proper Southern lady. Her heritage went back to a plantation in Darlington County. She was the first person I knew who used the expression keeping Christmas.

When my friend raised the question about the phrase, my thoughts went back to Aunt Sister. What did she mean by keeping Christmas?

Keeping Christmas well means to worship, not only in a candlelight service but also with acts of kindness. Beyond good food, decorations, gift giving, and family time, it is important to keep Christmas in our hearts.

It was something Ebenezer Scrooge had to learn in A Christmas Carol.  Scrooge had become so self-centered that his life focused on material wealth.  He refused to light a coal fire, preferring instead to curse the cold weather in an attempt to save one more shilling.  Like the Grinch who tried to steal Christmas, Ebenezer’s heart was two sizes too small.  He saw the world around him as a miserable place. The real problem was within his own soul.

The ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future confronted Scrooge with his own spiritual poverty.  Through these revelations, he had the opportunity to change.  Much to the astonishment of Bob Cratchit, and Tiny Tim, Ebenezer Scrooge became a different man.  The streets of London were the same.  Tiny Tim still had his affliction.  The transformation that occurred was in the heart of Ebenezer Scrooge.

Keeping Christmas requires a change of heart.

One Christmas Aunt Sister sent me a poem by Henry Van Dyke. Here is a portion of “Keeping Christmas.”

There is a better thing than the observance of Christmas day, and that is, keeping Christmas.

Are you willing

  • to forget what you have done for other people, and to remember what other people have done for you;
  • to ignore what the world owes you, and to think what you owe the world;
  • to see that men and women are just as real as you are, and try to look behind their faces to their hearts, hungry for joy;
  • to close your book of complaints against the management of the universe, and look around you for a place where you can sow a few seeds of happiness?

Are you willing to do these things even for a day? Then you can keep Christmas.

Are you willing

  • to stoop down and consider the needs and desires of little children;
  • to remember the weakness and loneliness of people growing old;
  • to stop asking how much your friends love you, and ask yourself whether you love them enough;
  • to bear in mind the things that other people have to bear in their hearts;
  • to try to understand what those who live in the same home with you really want, without waiting for them to tell you;
  • to trim your lamp so that it will give more light and less smoke,
  • to make a grave for your ugly thoughts, and a garden for your kindly feelings?

Are you willing to do these things, even for a day? Then you can keep Christmas.

Are you willing

  • to believe that love is the strongest thing in the world—

stronger than hate, stronger than evil, stronger than death—

  • and that the blessed life which began in Bethlehem is the image and brightness of the eternal love?

Then you can keep Christmas.

And if you can keep it for a day, why not always?