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HOMEGROWN TOMATOES

July 8, 2019

Last Friday I purchased three Cherokee purple tomatoes from Bellew’s Market on Garner Road in Spartanburg. Clare and I enjoyed good tomato sandwiches all weekend. This morning good friends showed up at our front door with a box of homegrown tomatoes. It is that time of year when tomatoes are at their peak in color and in flavor.

Before I retired I was often asked, “Preacher, do you have a vegetable garden?”

“No, I don’t,” I explained. “I have more fresh vegetables without a garden than I ever had when I planted a garden of my own.”

Church members kindly shared the bounty of their gardens with our household.  Sometimes we would know who to thank.  At other times, these gifts were left, anonymously, on our doorstep.

Dave Sikma is an Illinois farmer who plants two dozen or more tomato plants in his garden. Dave is our daughter Betsy’s father-in-law. He told me that the first time Betsy visited their farm she plucked several bright green tomatoes from his plants and prepared fried green tomatoes for the family. Dave was not so impressed with this Southern delicacy. His opinion was that the fruit is best when left on the vine to ripen as the good Lord intended.

When Clare and I traveled to our family vacation at Pawleys Island, we often stopped for lunch at Thomas Café, one of our favorite eateries in the Lowcountry of South Carolina. Clare usually ordered shrimp and grits while I selected flounder. Both plates were served with a side of fried green tomatoes.

A lifelong devotee of this distinctly Southern fare, I would search high and low for unripe tomatoes during our week at Pawleys. At roadside stands in the summertime green tomatoes are as scarce as hen’s teeth. In hot weather, even tomatoes that are picked green in the early morning soon start turning pink. Good fried tomatoes require the use of bright green fruit that is as firm as a potato. Absolutely no pink!

Here is my recipe for fried green tomatoes. Caution: these have a kick and the preparation is messy. The flavor is worth it!

Kirk’s Spicy Fried Green Tomatoes is a classic Southern recipe. There are many variations. This is our favorite.

4 large green tomatoes, (all green, no pink, hard as a rock)

2 eggs

1 cup buttermilk

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 cup cornmeal

Crushed red pepper flakes

Garlic powder

Coarsely ground salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Red pepper hummus

Jalapeño pimento cheese

Sour cream or goat cheese

Vegetable oil for frying

 

Dredging:

  • Slice tomatoes 1/2 inch thick. Discard the ends.
  • You need to use four bowls.
  • Into the first bowl pour only half of the buttermilk, and dip tomato slices.
  • Into the second bowl put the flour only. Lightly dip tomato slices covering both sides.
  • Into the third bowl whisk eggs and the rest of the buttermilk together, and dip tomato slices covering both sides.
  • In the fourth bowl mix cornmeal with red pepper flakes, garlic powder, coarsely ground salt, and freshly ground pepper, and thoroughly coat tomato slices on both sides.

Cooking:

  • In a large skillet, pour vegetable oil (enough so that there is 1/2 inch of oil in the pan) and bring to medium heat.
  • Place tomato slices, coated in batter, into the frying pan in small batches, depending on the size of your skillet. Fry a few at a time.
  • Do not crowd the tomatoes. Give them plenty of room! They should not touch each other.
  • When the tomatoes are lightly brown, flip and fry them on the other side.
  • Drain them on paper towels.

Serving:

  • On individual plates, spoon a heaping tablespoon of roasted red pepper hummus.
  • Place the first fried green tomato in the hummus.
  • Stack the fried green tomatoes three or four high with a spoonful of jalapeño pimento cheese between slices.
  • Top with a dollop of sour cream. Goat cheese is also good on top.

We always enjoy delicious red tomatoes served in various ways. Some folks swear by tomato pie. Others prefer the summer delight in salads of many varieties.

My specialty is Neely Soggy Tomato Sandwiches. In years past this was the sandwich of choice at the annual Neely Family Fourth of July Picnic. In our home, we always enjoy this favorite kitchen sink sandwich while tomatoes are in season.

2 vine-ripe tomatoes

Duke’s Real Mayonnaise

6 slices of white bread

Salt

Freshly ground pepper

  • Take six slices of white bread. Don’t use anything that is good for you – just plain ole white sandwich bread.
  • Slather Duke’s Real Mayonnaise heavily on all six slices. Only use Duke’s. Use about twice as much mayonnaise as you ordinarily would.
  • Grind fresh black pepper on all six pieces of bread.
  • Stack thinly-sliced, vine-ripe tomatoes three layers deep on three pieces of the bread.
  • Salt the tomato slices.
  • Mash – not lightly press – the remaining three pieces of bread, mayonnaise side down, on top of the tomatoes.
  • Turn the sandwiches over and mash again.
  • Cut the three sandwiches in half. Let them come to room temperature.
  • Stand over the kitchen sink to enjoy these juicy sandwiches.

Until a hundred years ago some people thought the tasty red treat was poisonous. Long before it was considered fit to eat, it was grown exclusively as an ornamental garden plant. The mistaken idea that tomatoes were poisonous probably arose because they belong to a strange plant family. A nightshade plant, from the Latin word solanum, it includes the matura, mandrake, and belladonna, all considered poisonous.

Close relatives are paprika, chili pepper, potato, tobacco, and petunia. The unpleasant odor of tomato leaves and stems contributed to the idea that the fruits were unfit for human consumption.

Tomatoes originated as wild plants in the tropical foothills of the Andes Mountains of Peru. Gradually, they were carried north into Central America. Because of the highly perishable nature of the fruit, the tomato was slow to be adopted as a cultivated plant by Native Americans. Mayans used the fruit in their cooking. Tomatoes were grown in Mexico by the sixteenth century. The Pueblo people believed that those who ate tomato seeds were blessed with powers of divination.

Spanish explorers in the sixteenth century introduced the tomato to Europe. Italians were the first Europeans to grow and eat tomatoes. Later the tomato was grown in English and Spanish gardens, not as food, but as a curiosity. The French gave it the name pomme d’amour, translated as love apple in English.

The earliest reference to tomatoes being grown in North America is from 1710, when herbalist William Salmon reported seeing them in South Carolina. They may have been introduced to our area from the Caribbean. By the mid-eighteenth century, tomatoes were grown on numerous Carolina plantations. Even then, they may have only been of ornamental interest.

Tomatoes were grown as food in New Orleans as early as 1812, no doubt because of French influence. Thomas Jefferson learned of tomatoes in France. The progressive Virginia farmer grew them at Monticello as early as 1781.

Tomatoes are now the most common garden vegetable in our country.  Along with zucchini squash, tomatoes have a reputation for out-producing the needs of the grower, thereby encouraging the sharing of garden bounty.

Tomatoes are regarded as one of the healthiest foods in our diet.  Rich in vitamins A and C, tomatoes contain lycopene, a chemical that gives them, as well as watermelons and red grapefruit, their color. Lycopene, an antioxidant, helps reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer.

Although the tomato is technically a fruit, a member of the berry group, it is also considered a vegetable. In fact, it is the state vegetable of New Jersey and Arkansas. Health experts claim that we need five to ten servings of vegetables and fruits every day. At this time of year, we should all take advantage of local homegrown tomatoes to meet our daily quota.

Tomatoes are my special favorite.  Several years ago I wrote these lines as an expression of my gratitude.

 

God is great. God is good.

Let us thank Him for our food.

By His hand we all are fed.

Give us, Lord, our daily bread;

 

Wholegrain bread, rye, or lite,

A sourdough loaf, or just plain white.

And please, dear Lord, some Duke’s mayonnaise,

And homegrown tomatoes for these summer days.

 

Add lettuce, and bacon, or maybe cheese,

But especially, Lord, I ask You please,

For vine-ripe tomatoes, sliced thick and round,

To make the best sandwich I’ve ever found.

 

On days that grow weary with muggy heat,

A soggy tomato sandwich just can’t be beat.

With a tall glass of something cold to drink,

I’ll eat my lunch over the kitchen sink.

 

I’m grateful for corn, that good Silver Queen,

For cantaloupe, peaches, and fresh green beans,

For squash, and okra, and small red potatoes,

But nothing is better than homegrown tomatoes.

 

God is great, and God is good.

Let us thank Him for our food.

I know His kindness never ends

When given tomatoes by special friends.

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REFLECTIONS ON INDEPENDENCE DAY

July 1, 2019

On July 4, my family and I will celebrate the birthday of our granddaughter, Allie Louise Neely. Allie is named for her maternal great grandmother, Allie Dunn, and for my mother, her paternal great grandmother, Anna Louise Neely. My mother was born on July 4, 1922.

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

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

In 1776, the Second Continental Congress unanimously adopted the Declaration of Independence. The American colonies officially separated themselves from the authority of England.

When I was a student at Cooperative School, one of my teachers required the class to memorize a brief passage from the Declaration. At the family picnic, those who knew the selection repeated it by heart. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

The importance of the Declaration can be underestimated even by the most loyal Americans. Students in a sociology class designed a research project. They printed out the words of the Declaration of Independence and placed copies of the document on clipboards. Without identifying the document as the Declaration, the students invited people at a shopping mall, to read and sign the petition. Most people refused to sign their name. They thought the document was too radical and would incite too much conflict.

The fifty-six signers of the Declaration of Independence were committing an act of treason against King George III. Though the names Franklin, Adams, Hancock, and Jefferson are familiar, few residents of the Palmetto State can name the four South Carolinians who placed their signatures on this document. They were Edward Rutledge, Thomas Heyward, Jr., Thomas Lynch, Jr., and Arthur Middleton.

In 1956, Paul Harvey, in “The Rest of the Story” radio broadcast, prsented a moving editorial about the signers of the Declaration of Independence. The following is my summary.

On July 4, 1776, the Declaration of Independence was adopted.

Ben Franklin, seventy years old, was the eldest among the fifty-six signers. Eighteen were under forty; three were in their twenties. Almost half were judges and lawyers. Eleven were merchants, nine were landowners and farmers, and twelve were doctors, ministers, and politicians.

With few exceptions, such as Samuel Adams of Massachusetts, these were men of wealth.  All but two had families. They were educated and well respected.

Each had more to lose from revolution than he had to gain by it. John Hancock, one of the richest men in America, already had a price on his head. He signed in enormous letters so “that his Majesty could now read his name without glasses and could now double the reward.”

These men knew what they risked. The penalty for treason was death by hanging. It was principle, not property, that had brought these men to Philadelphia. Ben Franklin wryly noted: “Indeed we must all hang together; otherwise we shall most assuredly hang separately.”

All of them became the objects of British manhunts. Some were captured. Some had narrow escapes. All who had property or families near British strongholds suffered.

Francis Lewis, New York delegate, saw his home plundered and his estate completely destroyed. His wife was treated with brutality and died from abuse.

William Floyd, another New York delegate, was able to escape with his wife and children across Long Island Sound to Connecticut. They lived as refugees without income for seven years. When they came home, they found a devastated ruin.

Phillips Livingstone had all his great holdings in New York confiscated and his family driven out of their home.

Louis Morris, the fourth New York delegate, saw all his timber, crops, and livestock taken. For seven years he was barred from his home and family.

John Hart of Trenton, New Jersey, risked his life to return home to see his dying wife. While his wife lay on her deathbed, Hessian soldiers ruined his farm. Hart slept in caves and woods as he was hunted across the countryside. When at long last, emaciated by hardship, he was able to sneak home, he found his wife had already been buried, and his thirteen children taken away. He never saw them again.

Dr. John Witherspoon was president of the College of New Jersey, later called Princeton. The British occupied the town of Princeton, billeted troops in the college, and burned the finest library in the country.

Judge Richard Stockton, another New Jersey delegate, had rushed back to his estate in an effort to evacuate his wife and children. The family found refuge with friends, but a Loyalist sympathizer betrayed them. Stockton was pulled from bed in the night and cruelly beaten by the arresting soldiers. Thrown into a common jail, he was nearly starved. The judge was released as an invalid. He returned home to find his estate looted and did not live to see the triumph of the Revolution. His family was forced to live off of charity.

Robert Morris of Philadelphia met Washington’s appeals and pleas for money time and again. He sacrificed one hundred and fifty merchant ships, depleting his own fortune.

Dr. Benjamin Rush from Pennsylvania was forced to flee to Maryland. As a heroic surgeon with the army, Rush had several narrow escapes.

John Morton lived in a strongly Loyalist area of Pennsylvania. When he came out for independence, most of his neighbors and even some of his relatives ostracized him.

William Ellery, Rhode Island delegate, saw his property and home burned to the ground.

South Carolina delegate, Thomas Lynch, Jr., served as a company commander in the Patriot army. His health was broken from deprivation and exposure. His doctors ordered him to seek a cure in the West Indies. On the voyage, he and his young bride were drowned at sea.

In the siege of Charleston, the British captured Edward Rutledge, Arthur Middleton, and Thomas Heyward, Jr., the other three South Carolina signers. They were exchanged at the end of the war. The British completely devastated their plantations.

Thomas Nelson of Virginia was in command of the Virginia militia at Yorktown. When British General Charles Cornwallis moved his headquarters into Nelson’s palatial house, Nelson cried, “Give me the cannon!” and fired on his own magnificent home himself, smashing it to bits. He had raised two million dollars for the Revolutionary cause by pledging his own estates. When the loans came due, a newer peacetime Congress refused to honor them, and Nelson’s property was forfeited. He died, impoverished at the age of 50.

Of the fifty-six who signed the Declaration of Independence, nine died of wounds. Five were captured, imprisoned, and treated with brutality. Several lost their wives; others lost their entire families. Twelve signers saw their homes burned to the ground. Seventeen lost everything they owned. Yet not one defected or went back on his pledged word.

Independence Day, July 4, 1776, was not a day off and certainly not a vacation. It was not about fireworks and picnics. It was the beginning of a war for independence marked with musket and cannon fire, death, and destruction. The freedoms we enjoy were hard won.

Thomas Jefferson, who wrote The Declaration of Independence, composed a magnificent closing line. These Patriots took a great risk when they signed, “And for the support of this Declaration with a firm reliance on the protection of divine providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”

For the signers of the Declaration that was no idle boast. It was a solemn vow, one that cost them dearly and secured our liberty.

THE ART OF BRICKLAYING

June 26, 2019

An emergency room nurse told me about a patient who came to the hospital in the middle of the night with an apparent kidney stone.  After some preliminary tests, she handed the man a small plastic cup and said, “I need a specimen.”

She left the room for a few minutes.  Upon her return, the man was sitting with the empty cup in his hand.  He did not understand her request.

She tried to clarify.  “Can you make water?” she asked.

“No, Ma’am,” he said. “I lay brick.”

Laying brick is not as easy as it may seem.

In the High Hills Ridge of the Santee stands the historic Church of the Holy Cross, also known as the Holy Cross Episcopal Church. General Thomas Sumter, a Revolutionary War hero known as the Gamecock, donated the land on which the church was built. The remarkable structure is a notable example of Gothic Revival design, featuring a cruciform, cross-shaped, floor plan, corner towers, and pointed arches. The walls were constructed of pisé de terre, or rammed earth.

When Clare and I visited the church, I commented on the unusual building material. Why didn’t they use brick instead of packing earth to build the old church? The answer is that there was no red clay in those sandy hills.

Browsing the Internet, I discovered that some people collect brick of various sorts. Where in the world do they keep such a collection?

I also learned more than I wanted to know about the history of brickmaking from a British Web site, http://www.brickdirectory.com.

Brick are one of the oldest known building materials dating back to the ancient city of Jericho. The first brick were made of sun-dried mud. Eventually, fired brick were discovered to be more resistant to weather and, therefore, more permanent. Fired brick also absorbed heat making the structure cooler in the day and warmer at night.

Archaeological discoveries reveal that the ancient Egyptians also used sun-dried mud brick as building materials. Paintings on the tomb walls of Thebes depict slaves making brick. The Biblical book of Exodus records brickmaking by the enslaved Israelites prior to their release from bondage.

The Greeks discovered that kiln-fired brick was less susceptible to erosion than even traditional marble walls. The Romans perfected the craft of kiln-firing red and white clay brick for the construction of public and private buildings throughout the empire.

During the twelfth century brick were introduced to northern Europe from Italy. The brick gothic period, as it is known, saw red clay fired brick used by masons instead of cut stone. The uniform shape of the brick made them easier to fit allowing the work to be more efficient. Brick Gothic style buildings are still in use throughout Europe.

Spartanburg County features several unusual examples of early American brickwork.  The Thomas Price house near Switzer was built in 1795 along the Old Stagecoach Road.  The steep gambrel roof and two inside end chimneys are distinctive.  The brick used in the home were made on the premises and laid in a Flemish Bond style.  The restored home is one of our historic treasures.

In the mid-1770s, an itinerant Dutch brick mason traveled through our county.  His specialty was building chimneys with a Dutch tapestry design using handmade brick of differing shades.  The light and dark colored brick created a complex pattern of diamonds in a chain. The design runs the entire height of the chimney.  Smith’s Tavern, also a restored home originally built in 1795, showcases one of the few remaining examples of the Dutchman’s craft.  The private home is located near the intersection of Ott Shoals Road and Blackstock Road south of Stone Station.

Foster’s Tavern, located along the Old Georgia Road was constructed in 1807.  The imposing home was built of hand thrown brick made from a nearby clay pit.  This public house was an elegant inn noted for its fine hospitality during the antebellum period.  John C. Calhoun was a regular guest at Foster’s Tavern as were a number of other notable travelers.  More recently known as the Ruff House, the landmark stands at the corner of South Carolina Highway 56 and Highway 295 near Cedar Springs.

By the way, the aforementioned clay pit was the place where my grandfather built his home in 1937.  It is the home in which our family still lives.

At a cookout several years ago, I admired an outdoor grill made entirely of brick.  The owner explained that he had built the grill out of brick that were left over from the construction of a retaining wall along his driveway.  He hired professional bricklayers to build the wall.  He watched the masons mix mortar and wield trowels as they crafted the long curved wall.  Feeling somewhat confident that he had learned the art of bricklaying by merely watching the skilled laborers, he decided to try building the brick grill on his own.

After two or three frustrating attempts, he questioned his ability to complete the job.  “I finally asked one of the men who built the wall to help me with the grill,” he confessed. “It was not as easy as it looked.”

Over the years I have seen masons working at their craft. The art of bricklaying requires skills that must be learned. A seasoned mason uses a trowel in the same way as an artist use brushes. Furthermore, the precision of the work requires masonry twine, levels, and plumb lines.

I have tried my hand at bricklaying on a few simple projects. I can attest that it is not as easy as it looks.

Masonry work requires, not only a skilled hand and a sharp eye but also a keen mind.  Years ago, a college math professor came to the lumberyard to buy brick.

“I need five thousand, eight hundred, and ninety seven brick,” he announced.

My grandfather said, “We usually sell brick by the thousand, but I’ll sell you that exact amount for the same price as six thousand.”

The professor blinked for a moment before my grandfather added, “That’s a lot of brick.  What are you building?”

The professor explained that he was closing in his carport to make a family room and planned to construct a fireplace with a chimney on one end of the new addition.

My grandfather commented that it must be a mighty big chimney.  Then he asked, “Tell me how you figured your brick.”

The professor explained that he had measured several brick, and he had measured mortar joints.  Multiplying the dimensions of the fireplace and chimney, he had calculated exactly how many brick he needed.

He insisted again, “I need exactly five thousand, eight hundred, and ninety seven brick.”

My grandfather took a puff on his cigar and said, “Fellow, you’re not from around here, are you?”

“No,” he said. “We moved here from the Midwest last year.”

With another puff of his stogie, my grandfather said, “I don’t know how folks build chimneys where you come from, Professor, but in this part of the world, we usually leave a hole up through the middle of the chimney so the smoke can get out.”

“Oh, no!” exclaimed the professor. “I calculated a solid chimney!”

Laying brick is just not as easy as it seems.

UNTIL WE ARE PARTED BY DEATH

June 18, 2019

Having retired five years ago, I do not perform nearly as many weddings as I did when I was a senior pastor. Still, I do conduct a few wedding ceremonies. This Spring, I have had the privilege of officiating at two weddings, both for young couples just beginning life together. I was reminded of how young Clare and I were when we got married. We were both twenty-one years old.

Today Clare and I celebrate our fifty-third wedding anniversary.  Eight years ago, my wife specifically requested that on our special day we begin cleaning the basement.  She wanted us to work on a project that had been on our to-do list for a long time. It might not seem like a very romantic way to spend our forty-fifth anniversary.  Moving boxes, discarding trash, and loading the car with used items to be delivered to the Salvation Army and the Children’s Shelter were all a part of the day. It was the only gift my wife requested, and I wasn’t about to disappoint her.

We worked together for several hours. Then, I picked up take-out food, and we ate supper together on our back porch, surrounded by boxes and bags of trash. We talked together about our marriage. We are married, and we are also best friends. Whether working together on a grungy project or dining out at a nice restaurant, as we did the following evening, Clare and I enjoy being together.

This year Clare’s request for our anniversary was far less demanding. “I just want us to have a meal someplace where we can be together and have eye contact with no distractions.” Both of us are mindful that we have no idea how many more anniversaries we will have together. Each one is to be savored.

Most of us are aware that marriage can be fragile. Few extended families have escaped the pain of separation or divorce. Clare and I have several good friends and dear family members who have suffered through the dissolution of their marriages.

Both Clare and I had parents who were married to one person until death separated them: mom and dad for fifty-eight years and Clare’s parents for forty-two years. Our parents set a good example for us.

We were married on a hot, humid Saturday in a small Methodist Church in the Midlands of South Carolina.  My three brothers and Clare’s only brother, Ben, were the groomsmen.

The wedding proceeded as rehearsed the previous night. Holding Clare’s hands, looking into her beautiful green eyes, I repeated my vows.  Suddenly, there was a loud crash behind me. Clare’s brother had fainted.

Always a quiet person, Ben had been ill the night before. He had kept it to himself so as not to interfere with the wedding. Unable to eat, standing motionless next to a bank of candles in a hot Methodist Church, Ben passed out. When he fell forward his mouth hit the altar rail, knocking out his two front teeth. Blood was everywhere.

My brothers scooped up Ben’s limp body and hauled him, arms and legs dangling, out the side door. Clare’s father jumped to his feet to attend to his son. The pastor simply waited to continue. Finally, the father of the bride and the three stunned groomsmen returned. Then, Clare repeated her vows to me.

I have long thought that Clare had an advantage. I repeated my vows with little understanding of what it meant to promise to love Clare for better or worse. By the time we continued, she, at least, had an inkling.

Few couples understand the gravity of the vows they make. It is the commitment made between the bride and the groom that is most important.

Our marriage has gone through numerous changes. For many years our marriage focused on our children. We had to make adjustments as our parents aged, especially when Clare’s mother suffered from dementia. More changes were required as our children became college students and then adults in their own right. Once our nest was empty, it started filling up again, this time with grandchildren. Clare and I enjoy our family, but we also take delight in those times we have for just the two of us.

An old man and an old woman, married to each other for sixty-one years, were driving along a country road in a pickup truck.  They got behind a late-model car.  In that car was a young couple.  The boy was driving, and the girl was sitting in the middle of the front seat.  The boy had his arm around his girlfriend.  The older couple in the truck followed the young couple for several miles.

After a while, the old woman said, “Pa, I remember when we used to be like that.”

After a pause, Pa replied, “I ain’t moved.”

We realize that our need for intimacy has not diminished, but it has changed. We have so much in common – a long history together, five children, wonderful in-laws, and thirteen beautiful grandchildren.  Marriages that endure are characterized by the bond that comes through shared experiences of joy and sorrow. The adventure of embarking together on a journey into the future is exciting, even if it means cleaning out the basement on a wedding anniversary.

Perhaps the wisdom in Robert Browning’s familiar poem, “Rabbi Ben Ezra” puts it best.

Grow old along with me!

The best is yet to be,

The last of life,

For which the first was made.

Our times are in His hands.

My dad and my stepmother were celebrating their third wedding anniversary at a restaurant in Tryon, North Carolina.  The waitress noticed that they were holding hands. She asked what occasion they were celebrating.

Dad replied, “We’re celebrating our wedding anniversary.”

The waitress said, “How wonderful.  How long have you been married?”

Dad responded, with a twinkle in his eye, “One hundred and twelve years.”

The waitress was startled.

Dad explained, “I was married to my first wife for 58 years.  Ruth was married to her first husband for 51 years.  And we’ve been married to each other for three years.  That’s a hundred and twelve.”

In a marriage that is an enduring source of joy and love, until we are parted by death is reason to celebrate.

HONORING OUR FLAG

June 11, 2019

Clare and I recently purchased a new flag to display on the front of our home. For years we have proudly hung the flag that draped the casket of Clare’s father, Mr. Jack, Jackson S. Long. Mr. Jack served in the United States Marine Corps during World War II.  His honor flag was presented to Clare at his funeral.

Over time the old flag that served us well for so many years became worn and faded. Made of cotton, the flag could not last forever.

The new flag is fashioned from heavy synthetic material purported to be more durable than the old cotton banner. We hung it on our front porch just before Memorial Day and will display it there until Labor Day. In the near future, we will invite a local Scout troop to help us properly retire the former flag.

Our grandchildren have been keenly interested in the new flag. They enjoy rubbing the shiny surface and watching it blow in the wind. Some of the older children have taken an interest in the history of the flag. Perhaps this brief refresher will help all of us appreciate the history of our flag.

June 14 is celebrated in the United States as National Flag Day. It commemorates the adoption of the flag of the United States on that date in 1777 by resolution of the Second Continental Congress. In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson issued a proclamation that officially established June 14 as Flag Day. In August 1949, National Flag Day was established by an Act of Congress. While Flag Day is not an official federal holiday, many Americans mark the day as our family does by displaying the flag. As Flag Day approaches on June 14, these reminders may help us pause and give the flag the honor it deserves.

The early flags of the United States of America were all hand sewn. Each flag has a unique history. For Flag Day, allow me to repeat some of those best-known stories. Read more…

THE DESIDERATA

June 7, 2019

I was ordained on April 1, 1970. That’s right! I was ordained on April Fools Day.

Perhaps you can imagine the jokes and the teasing that simple fact has prompted.

Clare and I were members of Crescent Hill Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky. I was two months away from graduation from Seminary. Dr. John Claypool was our pastor. He was also my professor of preaching at Southern Seminary. It was appropriate that he would be the one to deliver my ordination sermon.

John was an outstanding pastor and preacher. He served a total of five Baptist churches as a pastor. His life took two tragic turns. The first was the death of his nine-year-old daughter. The second was a difficult divorce that all but disqualified him from holding a pulpit in a Baptist church.

After a period of discernment and additional theological study, John became an Episcopal priest, continuing to use his remarkable gifts for ministry. He became the rector of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Birmingham, Alabama, a position that he held for fourteen years. He died in September 2005 at 74 years of age.

John chaired my ordination council and preached my ordination sermon. In the homily, he used a poem entitled “The Desiderata.”  The plural of desideratum is desiderata, the Latin word meaning desired things.

At the ordination service, the church presented a Bible to me. John had placed an abbreviated copy of the poem inside the Bible as a bookmark.

That copy, which I later pasted inside the front cover of the Bible, indicates that the poem was written in 1692 at Old St. Paul’s Church, in Baltimore, Maryland.

In truth, the author was Max Ehrmann, a poet and lawyer from Terre Haute, Indiana, who copyrighted the verse in 1927. The claim that “The Desiderata” was written in 1692 and was later found in Old St. Paul’s Church is incorrect.

In 1959, the Rev. Frederick Kates, the rector of Old St. Paul’s Church in Baltimore used the poem in a collection of devotional materials he compiled for his congregation. At the top of the booklet was the heading, Old St. Paul’s Church, Baltimore A.D. 1692. The church was founded in 1692.

As the poem was passed along, the authorship became clouded. It is certainly understandable that a later publisher would interpret the heading as meaning that the poem itself was found in Old St. Paul’s Church, dated 1692. This notation added to the charm and historic appeal of the poem.

A spoken-word recording of the essay was made by Les Crane perpetuated the older date. That recording reached #8 on the “Billboard” magazine charts in 1971.

When Adlai Stevenson was former Governor of Illinois and Democratic candidate for President of the United States in both 1952 and in 1956. When he died in 1965, a guest in his home found a copy of “The Desiderata” near his bedside. Stevenson had planned to use it in his Christmas cards. The publicity that followed gave the verse a boost in popularity and furthered the mistaken relationship to Old St. Paul’s Church.

The Desiderata

Go placidly amid the noise and haste,
and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible without surrender
be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly;
and listen to others,
even the dull and the ignorant;
they too have their story.

Avoid loud and aggressive persons,
they are vexations to the spirit.
If you compare yourself with others,
you may become vain and bitter;
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.

Keep interested in your own career, however humble;
it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs;
for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is;
many persons strive for high ideals;
and everywhere life is full of heroism.

Be yourself.
Especially, do not feign affection.
Neither be cynical about love;
for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment
it is as perennial as the grass.

Take kindly the counsel of the years,
gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.
But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.
Beyond a wholesome discipline,
be gentle with yourself.

You are a child of the universe,
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

Therefore be at peace with God,
whatever you conceive Him to be,
and whatever your labors and aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.

With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.

Last Thursday, I read again the poem pasted in my Bible. I reflected on the life of my pastor, my teacher, my mentor – John Claypool.

At the time I was ordained, I wondered why he included the poem in his sermon. Now, after fifty-three years of pastoral ministry, I understand the wisdom of these words.

BLACK SNAKE IN THE HOUSE

June 4, 2019

Last Monday afternoon our daughter walked into her laundry room. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw something move on the shelf above her washing machine. It was a rather large black snake. She closed the laundry room door and left the house with her two young daughters. She called her husband. The serpent was safely returned to the wilds of Duncan Park.

Four years ago, I was rummaging in the part of our basement we call Outer Darkness, a Biblical term used to describe the final destination of lost souls. Back in 1937 when my grandfather built the house, it was heated with a coal-burning furnace.  The coal was dumped through a chute into a coal cellar. That old coal cellar is what Clare and I named Outer Darkness. It is the final destination for forgotten items. Anything that probably should have been discarded long ago spends some time in outer darkness before it is finally cast into the trash.

I honestly don’t remember why I was fumbling around in Outer Darkness, but I distinctly remember seeing the four-foot black snake coiled among the boxes and shopping bags. The sleek reptile was just as surprised and just as eager to get away as I was. The one thing I knew for sure was that he was in the wrong place and had to go. Employing the handle of an old straw broom, I managed to carry the intruder outside.

My dad often told me that every time Mama saw a snake it was a sign that she was pregnant. Fortunately, Clare did not see the slinky fellow lounging in our basement four years ago.

For the first six years of my life, our family lived in a four-room house on Kentucky Avenue in Spartanburg. In the kitchen, a two-eyed laundry heater stoked with firewood supplied the source of hot water, provided warmth for our home, and served as a cooking surface. Smoke was vented through a stovepipe.

Early one morning when I was five years old, I heard my mother calling my name with distress in her voice. She was cooking breakfast when she discovered a large black snake coiled behind the heater. The slinky critter had found a warm place to spend the night.

My mother gave me the instructions, “Go out the front door. Come around to the back and hold the door open for me!”

“Yes, ma’am!”

My mother, pregnant with her fourth child, herded the snake out of her kitchen with a straw broom. The shiny black serpent, his presence in the house most unwelcome, wiggled past me. My admiration for my mother’s courage and my respect for the black snake’s ingenuity increased.

The southeastern United States is home to at least forty-five species of snakes. Only six of those are poisonous. Among the several species of black snakes the ring-necked snake, the pine snake, the eastern indigo snake, and the southern black racer are included. The eastern hog-nosed snake is sometimes black. The venomous cottonmouth moccasin is usually black but lives only below the fall line in South Carolina. Humans often kill snakes as a result of misinformation or misidentification.  I have heard the comment “The only good snake is a dead snake!” numerous times.  In our area, many people think that every snake they see is a copperhead.

The black rat snake, also called pilot snake, is the most common snake in the Southeast. It is also the largest snake in our area, sometimes reaching eight feet in length. Found in forests, fields, marshes, and farmland, these skillful climbers can ascend the trunks of large trees and climb into the rafters of barns. They can also swim quite well.

Years ago I was fishing with a group of Cub Scouts near Burrell’s Ford on the Chattooga River. I noticed a humongous granddaddy black snake slithering down the opposite bank of the river, the Georgia side. He proceeded to swim through the swift current, straight toward the covey of young boys.

In an attempt to prevent widespread panic, I met the long snake on the South Carolina side, quickly grabbing him behind the head. The large constrictor threw three coils around my arm. His strength was impressive.

The Cubs shouted, “Dr. Kirk, what are going to do with him?”

“Can I hold him?”

“Can I take him home with me?”

I retreated to a pine tree to release the powerful snake. Just as I let him go, he whipped his head around, biting me hard on my right thumb. Having expressed his displeasure with me, he scaled the tree in no time flat. I washed my bleeding thumb in alcohol from a first aid kit, explaining to the boys that we had invaded the snake’s territory.

In the spring and fall, black rat snakes are active during the day; in the summer they move around at night. When startled, they often wrinkle themselves into a series of kinks. If they feel further threatened, they may flee quickly or coil and vibrate their tails in dead leaves as a form of mimicry, making a sound like a rattlesnake. They produce a foul-smelling musk odor which they release onto a predator.

This species is a constrictor, coiling around its prey and tightening its grip until the victim suffocates. Then the predator swallows its meal whole. True to its name, black rat snakes consume mice and rats. They will also hunt other snakes, as well as chipmunks, squirrels, bats, birds, and bird eggs.

My mother apparently had radar for black snakes. One Sunday after church the ten people in our family were enjoying a fine dinner together when Mama saw something amiss through the screen door. “I think a snake is crawling up the wall in the garage,” she said.

Sure enough, a hungry black snake was making its way to a wren’s nest in the rafters. My dad quickly dispatched the intruder to the field beyond the fence.

Though they have few natural foes, I have witnessed a full-grown black snake dangling helplessly from the clenched talons of a red-tailed hawk. Humans are their most common enemies. They are in danger of being slain by frightened people.  Black snakes are also frequent roadkill victims.

Black snakes are beneficial to humans because they prey on rodents. Several years ago, I released a black snake into my barn for that very reason. I haven’t seen him since.

Even those who understand the value of these beneficial reptiles don’t always respect them.

Once a man offered to build a tool shed for his brother-in-law. The property owner had seen a large black snake on his land. He cautioned, “If you see a black snake, leave him alone. Black snakes are our friends.”

Later that day the owner returned to see how the project was progressing. Aghast at seeing a large dead black snake draped over a fence, he chided his brother-in-law, “I told you not to kill a black snake. They are our friends.”

“When I sit down to eat my lunch, I don’t appreciate being surprised by your friend.”

My sentiments exactly when I found one in our basement!