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HOLY WEEK: FROM PALM SUNDAY TO GOOD FRIDAY

April 9, 2022

Most readers of this column know that I am a retired Christian pastor. In my tradition, this week is the most sacred week of the calendar year. That is why it is called Holy Week by many Christians. I write knowing that my readers hold diverse faith orientations, or some have none at all. Some Christians do not observe Holy Week. I offer these thoughts to offend no one, but to help all of us understand each other a little better.     

I was looking through an old file and found a clipping from the bulletin of a church in Lexington, Kentucky. The article was entitled “The History and Meaning of Holy Week Observances.” I had used the explanation of the events of Holy Week in my column for the church newsletter to help us better understand the worship experiences offered during this special week.

Holy Week is the final week of Lent. It commemorates the events of the last week in the earthly life of Jesus. Holy Week, the remembrance of the death and celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, is the most sacred time of the Christian Year.

Palm Sunday services usually begin with a joyful procession. On Palm Sunday, we remember that Jesus, accompanied by His disciples, entered the city of Jerusalem in triumph. An enthusiastic crowd greeted Jesus by spreading palm branches along the road and shouting “Hosanna!”, a Hebrew expression meaning “Save us.” The crowd hailed Jesus as the Son of David, the Messiah promised long ago by God.

The Jewish Passover often falls within Holy Week. Passover provides the foundation for much of our Christian observance of Holy Week. The Lord’s Supper grew out of Jesus’ reinterpretation of the Passover meal. For Christians, Jesus becomes the sacrificial lamb. John the Baptist said of Jesus, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” Though Passover is not to be confused with a Christian observance, there is a clear Biblical link between the two faith traditions.

Maundy Thursday is the evening when Christians recall the events that took place the night Jesus was betrayed. The word Maundy is derived from the Latin phrase mandatum novum, meaning new commandment. It refers to the Lord’s words to His apostles as recorded in John 13:34: “A new command I give you:  Love one another.” Maundy Thursday worship is the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. This night is the anniversary of the final Passover meal Jesus had with his disciples before his death.

Tenebrae, or Service of Shadows, takes place following Holy Communion on Maundy Thursday evening. It derives its name from the gradual extinguishing of candles and lights during the service. The darkness is a symbolic recreation of the gloom that covered the land when our Lord died and the fading life of our Lord as He hung on the cross. Scripture readings and hymns direct our meditation on the cross.

Good Friday is the day of the solemn remembrance of Jesus’ death on the cross. The English designation of Good Friday is a fitting one since the Lord’s death was for our eternal good. Despite the solemnity of Good Friday worship, it is not a funeral service for Jesus. Instead, it is a time of quiet and serious contemplation on His great saving work.

On Friday, January 17, 2014, friends and family gathered to celebrate the life of Bruce Cash in a funeral service designed precisely the way Bruce wanted it to be. Those who attended had a meaningful experience, remembering Bruce as a kind and faithful man whose life touched many others.

Bruce was my brother-in-law, married to my sister Kitty. She is the youngest of eight; I am the oldest. When she was born, I was in junior high school.

Having a younger sister is good for an older brother. I saw myself as her guardian, her protector, not as a parental surrogate. That role was strongly activated when Kitty began dating. I thought my responsibility was to keep the creepy guys away, which I did. In time, Kitty met Bruce when both were asked to sing at a wedding. Before long, we welcomed Bruce Cash into the Neely family, and I have thanked the Lord for him many times. Bruce was the perfect husband for my sister and the perfect father to their six children.

Many remember Bruce best for his work as the pharmacist and owner of Ford’s Drugs. Many others remember him best for his music. From the songs of James Taylor to the hymns of faith, Bruce had a magnificent voice.

From the late 1980s through the early 1990s, First Baptist Church secured the Spartanburg Memorial Auditorium for the presentation of “The Passion of Christ.” During this musical drama scheduled for Holy Week, Bruce portrayed Christ, and rightly so. Not only did he have the voice, but he also possessed a deep humility. The role fit him, and he fit the part.

To prepare for the Passion play, Bruce began letting his whiskers grow after Christmas so that he would have a full beard before Easter. Customers in the drug store noticed the facial hair and anticipated the drama to come.

One morning following the presentation of “The Passion of Christ,” I walked into Ford’s Drugs and exchanged greetings with an older gentleman. He said, “I saw the Passion play for the first time last night. The production was very well done. I had considerable trouble going to sleep though, because I just couldn’t get the story out of my mind. I’ll tell you what. There’s nothing like walking into a drugstore to pick up a prescription and having Jesus hand me the medicine.”

Holy Week, the days between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday, centers on an up close and personal encounter with Jesus. Each year, Christians remember the events that occurred during the last week of the earthly life of Jesus. Seeing the images of Jesus depicted in Renaissance paintings or even in motion pictures can create a profound experience. But hearing Bruce quote the teachings of Jesus and seeing him kneel in the garden was deeply moving. Then seeing someone I know and love on the cross was heartbreaking. I was always moved to tears when I heard Bruce utter that excruciating cry from the cross, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”)

Except for John, the beloved disciple, and Jesus’ first cousin, the other disciples were not present when Jesus died. A common interpretation of the fact is that they were fearful for their own lives. That explanation may very well be true. I think it is also possible that they just could not bear the horror of seeing someone they knew so well and loved so dearly die such a painful death. To those first followers, Jesus was the teacher they had heard speaking to the multitudes, the healer who had touched so many lives, the friend and companion who loved them. They simply could not witness the cruel death on Golgotha. When I saw Bruce on a cross, even in a Passion play, it hurt me and moved me deeply.

Bruce taught me a significant truth about the primary reason to observe Good Friday. The one crucified on that old rugged cross is not a chiseled icon, a depiction of one distant and anonymous. This is no generic sacrifice on a hill far away. This is an act of personal self-giving love. More is required than a passing nod or slight reverence. Christ is the Savior who loves us and desires a personal relationship with us. What happened that day was the supreme act of divine and human love. Bruce knew that in every fiber of his being. His representation of Christ was genuine because it came from his heart.

In the words of Isaac Watts:

See from His head, His hands, His feet,

Sorrow and love flow mingled down….

Love so amazing, so divine,

Demands my soul, my life, my all.

Bruce Cash, my brother-in-law, my brother-in-love, hanging on a cross, comes to mind every Good Friday. For me, it makes the experience of this event, at the very core of the Christian faith,  intimate and personal. I am eternally grateful.

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

He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com

Over these past months, I have asked that we contribute to our local charitable agencies. Thank you for all you have done. I will continue making suggestions because I have learned that these nonprofit organizations are quickly forgotten unless they are called to mind. Please know that I respect your freedom to choose agencies that are meaningful to you. One way to measure the strength of our community is to observe how we respond to those in greatest need. Please continue with your kindness and generosity. This week, please volunteer, or donate, as you are able, to the charity of your choice for relief for the people of Ukraine. There are many options. Locally, several churches and religious groups are collecting gifts for those suffering from war. Please help if you are able.

FOLLOWING THE FRENCH BROAD RIVER

April 4, 2022

In the early Spring several years ago, Clare and I were driving from our home in Spartanburg to Nashville, Tennessee.  A massive rock slide near the boundary between North Carolina and Tennessee changed our plans.  Interstate Highway 40, which follows the Pigeon River through the heart of the Smoky Mountains, was closed to traffic.  We had to choose between the high road and the low road.  We could take Interstate 85 south through Atlanta and then Interstate 75 north through Chattanooga, a route we had taken previously in the winter to avoid snow in the mountains.  Or we could travel backroads from Asheville, North Carolina, to Newport, Tennessee, merging into Interstate 40 beyond the rock slide.  We choose the latter, the road less taken.  Driving along old U.S. highways 70 and 25, we followed the French Broad River through the Smokies.

At its headwaters, the French Broad begins as a trickle in western North Carolina near the town of Rosman.  Flowing for 210 miles through the Blue Ridge Mountains, it joins the Holston River outside of Knoxville to create the Tennessee River.  Along the way, numerous tributaries, including the Pigeon and Nolichucky Rivers, flow into the French Broad.

The French Broad River has several fascinating features.  It is thought to be the third oldest river in the world.  It is so old that it is practically devoid of fossils.  Only the Nile in Africa and, ironically, the New River predate it.  These are the only three rivers in the world that flow south to north.  The New River begins in North Carolina on the other side of the Eastern Continental Divide.  North Carolina has the distinction of having both the second and third oldest rivers in the world within its borders.

The French Broad is older than the surrounding mountains.  As the mountains rose, the river cut through the rocks taking a twisted route.  The river was already flowing when the land buckled, and the Appalachian Chain formed.

I have seen the French Broad at many places along its circuitous course.  Near the entrance to Pisgah National Forest just outside of Brevard, the Davidson River spills over boulders and through a sycamore grove to join the French Broad.  To stand at the confluence of the two rivers is like witnessing a turbulent marriage.

I spent two hours one summer afternoon at a stretch along the river known as Long Shoals.   I retrieved a beach chair from my pickup truck and sat watching the river and writing in my journal.  I saw anglers wading in the wide, rocky river fly casting for trout, a great blue heron stabbing into the shallows, and a belted kingfisher swooping and chattering as she plucked fingerlings from the water.  I think they all got their limit.

I have paused at an overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway to view the French Broad in the valley below.  Sitting on the tailgate of my pickup, I watched a pair of red-tail hawks riding the updrafts, circling higher and higher, then diving in search of their prey near the meandering river.

In late winter, I have admired the river from the Appalachian Trail above Hot Springs.  As I made my way down the steep path, ice formations along the river sparkled in the sun.  The snow-covered mountains dropped dramatically to the river below.

As Clare and I made our springtime drive toward Nashville, the winding river was our constant companion through the Blue Ridge.  Hazy mountains provided a backdrop for the river flowing through lush green pasture land.  The landscape was adorned with flowering trees.  Redbud, wild cherry, and dogwoods trailed down the hillsides and bloomed along the river banks.

Further along in Madison County, the mountains rise higher and steeper.  Where the ancient watercourse has cut a deep gorge through the granite rocks, the river becomes wider and wilder.  It is here that expert whitewater enthusiasts challenge the French Broad.

I have rafted several mountain rivers, the Nolichucky, the Nantahala, and the Chattooga among them.  I have also taken an open canoe on tamer stretches of the New River and the Nolichucky.  I paddled a section of the French Broad several years ago.  The thing I remember most about that adventure was the beautiful orange wild flame azaleas all along the bank.  I also remember the variety of birds, especially the flycatchers.

Clare and I approached the town of Hot Springs, North Carolina, located on the French Broad near the Tennessee state line.  The town is a haven for backpackers, whitewater aficionados, retirees, tourists, and shoppers.  The Appalachian Trail crosses the river on Bridge Street and climbs the steep mountains on either side.  Clare and I stopped for a cup of coffee.  I picked up a pamphlet entitled The French Broad River Map and Guide published by River Link.  It was chock full of good information.

The earliest known settlers of the French Broad region were Native Americans.  Indian mounds have been found to date back as far as 500-200 A.D.  Evidence of Cherokee habitation can be traced back to at least 1000 A.D.  The Cherokee and their predecessors knew the area well.  For thousands of years, these first inhabitants hunted the forested slopes of the French Broad River Gorge, fished the rushing waters, and farmed the rich bottomland.  Today, the remains of more than twenty archaeological sites stand as mute witnesses along its banks.

 Visited in 1540 by Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto, the river basin was later occupied by English-speaking settlers.  In the 1780s, the first white settlers crossed the Blue Ridge and settled the valleys.

I met a fellow who lived most of his life on a spread beside the French Broad between Etowah and Horse Shoe in Henderson County.  He said that the bottomland along the river was some of the best in North Carolina.  “There’s just one thing,” he said.  “That river has a mind of her own.  When she floods, she creates havoc for everybody.”

Flooding has been a perennial problem along the French Broad.

Colonel Sidney Pickens, a native of Hendersonville, North Carolina, was a Confederate veteran of the Civil War.  In the shallow waters of the French Broad River, Colonel Pickens saw an opportunity to make his fortune.  With political pull from Congressman Robert Vance, funding was obtained to dredge the river between Brevard and Hendersonville.

When the United States Army Corps of Engineers completed the work, Colonel Pickens announced his plan for building a steamship to ply the waters of the mountain river.

The Mountain Lily began service in 1881.  The boat was 90 feet long, featured two paddlewheels, and could accommodate 100 passengers.  It was a worthy rival to riverboats along the Mississippi.

The maiden voyage was brief but successful.  Loaded to capacity, the Mountain Lily was quite the rage.  Pickens advertised that his steamboat operation, the highest in elevation in America, offered travelers a pleasant alternative to bumpy wagon rides along twisting mountain roads.

The capricious French Broad was unkind to the Mountain Lily and to Colonel Pickens.  Dredging had made the river deep enough, but it was still too narrow for the steamboat to navigate in many places.  Pickens apparently had not considered King’s Bridge near Mills River in Henderson County.  The bridge was just too low for the boat.  The elegant white and green steamboat was consigned to short sightseeing trips, receptions, and parties.  After less than four years on the French Broad, a flash flood ripped the Mountain Lily from her moorings and deposited the wreck downstream on a sandbar.  The wooden planks from Pickens’ boat were salvaged and used to build Riverside Baptist Church in Horse Shoe, North Carolina.  The steamboat’s bell hangs in the belfry.

In the mid-1960s, the Tennessee Valley Authority developed a plan to build a series of dams in the French Broad River Valley in Transylvania County for flood control and recreational use.  But local residents objected, and the plan was scrapped.

Clare and I continued our journey, following the river into Tennessee.  At Douglas Lake, we could clearly see that its power was an important energy source for industry and homes.  Over the years, the banks of the French Broad have been industrialized by cotton mills, riverside factories, even the doomed steamboat Mountain Lily.

As manufacturing grew, so did pollution.  In 1955, Wilma Dykman published her book The French Broad.  Calling the river “Too thick to drink and too thin to plow,” Dykeman raised awareness of the river’s plight.  With the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, The French Broad was restored to a clear mountain river.  Once polluted and nearly lifeless, the French Broad has been rehabilitated.  Now it supports a wide variety of fish, including largemouth bass, brown and rainbow trout, muskellunge, and catfish.

The French Broad is again thriving with wildlife.  Large varieties of birds live along its banks.  Great blue herons are numerous.  Green herons and little blue herons can be seen wading in the quiet waters, searching for fish and crustaceans.  Other water birds include the black duck, pied-bill horned grebes, belted kingfisher, osprey, and wood duck.  Bald eagles nest near the water.  Migratory woodland birds, including vireos, warblers, flycatchers, and swallows, are commonly seen and heard in summer.

The Cherokee gave the river its oldest known name, Agiqua, meaningLong Man, and its tributaries were his chattering children.  English settlers named it the French Broad because the wide river flowed west toward the Mississippi Valley, territory claimed by French explorers and fur traders.  The name also distinguishes it from its eastern cousin, the Broad River.

I asked a fellow from Hot Springs how the river got its name.

“We call her the French Broad because she is the finest broad anywhere in these parts!”

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

He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com

Over these past months, I have asked that we contribute to our local charitable agencies.  Thank you for all you have done.  I will continue making suggestions because I have learned that these nonprofit organizations are quickly forgotten unless they are called to mind.  Please know that I respect your freedom to choose agencies that are meaningful to you.  One way to measure the strength of our community is to observe how we respond to those in greatest need.  Please continue with your kindness and generosity.  This week, please volunteer, or donate, as you are able, to Spartanburg Soup Kitchen, 136 Forest Street, Spartanburg, South Carolina 29306, (864) 585,0022.

THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO REX

March 26, 2022

When I was two years old, my mother often took me outside to the front yard of our small frame house and put me in a playpen for some time in the sunshine.  For my entertainment, she placed several toys in the enclosure.  My favorite was a brightly colored rubber ball.

 One day while I was in the playpen, the telephone rang.  Since this was in the days before portable phones and cellular phones, my mother stepped inside the house, only a few feet away, to answer the call.  In her absence, I threw the ball out into the yard.  To my shock and dismay, a large German shepherd dog, the pet of our across-the-street neighbors, retrieved the ball and leapt over the barrier into the playpen to return it to me.  When my mother saw the enormous dog with the ball in his mouth towering over me, she screamed.  The German shepherd left as quickly as he had come.  I was reduced to a sobbing, quivering state of fear.  From that day to this, I have a momentary pause when I see a German shepherd. 

As a result of my playpen encounter, I have experienced some ambivalence regarding German shepherds.  I remember watching episodes of Rin Tin Tin on black-and-white television.  Rin Tin Tin was a German shepherd hero assigned to the United States Calvary.  I liked Rin Tin Tin.  As a boy, I read Jack London’s Call of the Wild.  The notion that wolves and dogs are first cousins was implanted in my mind.  The children’s stories, The Three Little Pigs and Little Red Riding Hood, depicted wolves as big, bad antagonists.  When I saw the illustrations that accompanied the tales, I perceived the wolf as a close relative to a German shepherd.  The two canines, wolf and dog, seemed a lot alike.  Through the years, I have been the proud owner of a beagle, a cocker spaniel, a Scottish terrier, an Airedale, and several dogs of the Heinz 57 variety.  I have never owned a German shepherd.

I was visiting the office of Dr. Hugh Hayes, a seasoned veterinarian, and a good friend.  We were discussing dog breeds and their temperaments.  I shared my early experience with the German shepherd and my lingering caution.  He said, “Kirk, if you ever are around a German shepherd, you’ll change your mind.  They are great family dogs, gentle and kind to small children.  They are easily trained and obedient.  The German shepherd is a smart breed and a great pet.”

A few years ago, I was invited to be the guest preacher at a Family Life Conference in a church in North Carolina.  On Sunday morning, I stood on the platform singing with the congregation the beautiful words of Saint Francis of Assisi, “All Creatures of Our God and King.” Down the red-carpeted aisle of the Sanctuary strolled a German shepherd.  I momentarily wondered, “If I throw this hymn book, will he retrieve it?” I restrained myself and continued to sing though I felt that old familiar moment of anxiety. 

The German shepherd came all the way to the front row and positioned himself at the end of the pew.  He clearly had a designated place in the Sanctuary.  When the congregation stood, the dog stood.  When the congregation was seated, the German shepherd enjoyed complete repose.  As I recall, the dog slept all the way through my sermon that morning.  I am sorry to say he was not the only one.    

On Sunday night of the Family Life Conference, I enjoyed a meal with the church congregation prior to the service.  It was there that I was formally introduced to Rex.  I remember musing that a Latin name seemed somehow inappropriate for a German shepherd.  I thought he should have been named something barbaric like Attila or at least something Germanic like Kaiser, but he was Rex, the Latin word for King. 

A young woman named Elizabeth owned Rex.  She was almost completely blind, and her dog served as her eyes.  After being introduced to Elizabeth, she said, “Pastor Kirk, Rex is my Seeing Eye dog.” Then she continued, “Rex, this is Pastor Kirk.  I don’t think he’ll bite.” I did not bite, and neither did Rex.   

Elizabeth and Rex attended the Family Life Conference throughout the week.  Each night I greeted them before and after the service.  I gave Elizabeth a hug, and I scratched Rex behind the ears.  As well as I can remember, he slept through all of my sermons.   I was privileged to discover the gospel according to Rex. 

My encounter with Rex reminded me of the importance of training, especially the training of shepherds.  God has endowed the German shepherd with unusual abilities to hear, see, and smell.  Intelligence, combined with keen senses, makes the German shepherd one of the most versatile of all breeds.  Originally used as a herding dog, German shepherds have been trained as guards, as law enforcement specialists, and as rescue workers.  These courageous animals have saved countless human lives.

Many of us come into this world with an aggressive streak.  I suppose we could say it is in our genes.  When threatened, we defend ourselves.  When frightened, we may fight.  When angered, we are prone to attack.  It is a part of our nature that the Bible refers to as “the flesh.” The good news is that we can be trained.  Becoming a person of faith is somewhat like obedience training for a dog.  It is a matter of learning to trust enough to obey God.  To first-century disciples in training, Jesus said, “If you love me, you will obey what I command.” (John 14:15).  

A wolf in the wild and a German shepherd trained to be a Seeing-Eye dog look very much alike.  Their genetic makeup is similar.  The difference is in their training.  A German shepherd, trained to be a Seeing Eye dog, acquires a gentleness that is born of discipline rather than breeding.  It is the kind of transformation that occurs in a person’s life as they grow in faith.  As I observed the relationship between Rex and Elizabeth, I witnessed patience and gentleness in the German shepherd that is desirable in every shepherd, in every pastor, in every believer.  

On the final evening of the Family Life Conference, I selected as the text for the message, Psalm 23.  I used the shepherd imagery in the Psalm as the basis for a job description for parents.  At the conclusion of the service, the congregation sang, “Savior, like a shepherd lead us.  Much we need thy tender care.”  From that day to this, whenever I hear that hymn, I am reminded of the gospel according to Rex. 

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

He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com

Over these past months, I have asked that we contribute to our local charitable agencies.  Thank you for all you have done.  I will continue making suggestions because I have learned that these nonprofit organizations are quickly forgotten unless they are called to mind.  Please know that I respect your freedom to choose agencies that are meaningful to you.  One way to measure the strength of our community is to observe how we respond to those in greatest need.  Please continue with your kindness and generosity.  This week, please volunteer, or donate, as you are able, to Hope Center for Children, 202 Hudson L Barksdale Blvd, Spartanburg, South Carolina 29306, (864) 583-7687.