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LEARNING TO BE KIND

September 11, 2022

Henry James was an American author considered by many to be among the greatest novelists in the English language. He was the brother of renowned philosopher and psychologist William James. Once when Henry James was concluding a visit with his young nephew Billy, his brother William’s son, he offered advice that the young man never forgot. “There are three things that are important in human life. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. The third is to be kind.”

            Most of us would agree that, recently, kindness is a virtue that has been in short supply in many quarters of our American life. Most of us would also agree that kindness is a key to getting along with other people. From early childhood, we are taught to be kind to others. Conscientious adults, parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, teachers and leaders have impressed upon us the importance of simple kindness.

            Kindness begins at home. This is a lesson that I had the opportunity to teach two of my grandchildren this very day. One concrete expression of kindness is sharing. This includes taking turns swinging in a hammock or sharing a favorite toy with a brother or a sister. At an adult level, how much more is human kindness expressed when we share food or clothing or a drink of cold water!

            Kindness is homegrown. Children learn to be kind as they learn many other things –by example.   

            Several years ago, on the fourth floor of the Heart Center at Spartanburg Regional Hospital, I saw a sign on the Managing Nurse’s office that read, “Kindness is power.” Rarely do we think of kindness as having anything to do with power. There’s something incongruous about that statement. Kindness is often associated with gentleness, as, for example, in the expression, “a kinder, gentler nation.” or in a list of virtues where kindness and gentleness are listed along with love, joy, peace, goodness, meekness, and other fruits of the Spirit.

            The explicit purpose of the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation is the promotion of kind deeds. The foundation has a website that lists inspirational stories detailing how spontaneous acts of kindness have made a difference in the lives of individuals. A quote from Leo Buscaglia, former Professor at the University of Southern California and renowned author, affirms this concept. “Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.” This brings to mind a Bible verse, “Be kind, one to another.”

            In his book, On the Road With Charles Kuralt, Charles Kuralt wrote, “The everyday kindness of the back roads more than makes up for the acts of greed in the headlines.” The week of St. Valentine’s Day, February 13 through 19, has been designated as National Random Acts of Kindness Week. We can make a difference in this world if we are open to dispensing kindness.

            William Penn, the founder of Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love, said, “I expect to pass through life but once. If, therefore, there be any kindness I can show, or any good thing I can do to any fellow being, let me do it now, and not defer or neglect it, as I shall not pass this way again.”

            One of my favorite examples of a random act of kindness involves William D. Boyce, a millionaire publisher from Chicago. In 1909, he traveled to Africa for a hunting safari. On his return trip, he stopped in London for a business appointment. He was walking through the streets on an afternoon when all of London was enshrouded in thick fog. Mr. Boyce was hopelessly lost.

            Just then, a twelve-year-old boy carrying a lantern stepped out of the gloom. He asked the American publisher if he needed help. Boyce told him where he was to meet his appointment, and the boy led him there. When they arrived, W. D. Boyce offered the boy a shilling as a tip. The young man refused, “No, thank you, sir. I am a scout.” Boyce asked, “A scout? What might that be?” The boy explained to the American about the new scouting movement. Boyce became very interested and asked if the boy could stay a moment to tell him more.

            After the business meeting, the scout led W. D. Boyce to the British Scouting office. Lt. General Robert Baden-Powell, who was at the office, welcomed Mr. Boyce. The scout disappeared into the London fog. In the ensuing conversation, Lord Baden-Powell and William Boyce decided to make an effort to expand Scouting to America. Baden-Powell filled a trunk with scout handbooks, uniforms, and other scouting paraphernalia. Upon his return to Chicago, William Boyce pursued his goal. On February 8, 1910, the Congress of the United States granted a charter to the Boy Scouts of America.

            What happened to the boy who helped Mr. Boyce find his way through the fog of London? No one knows. He refused the money and did not give his name, but he will never be forgotten. In the British Scout Training Center at Gilwell Park, England, scouts from the United States erected a statue of an American bison in honor of the Unknown Scout.                

            Because of one random act of kindness by an English boy, more than 100 million American youth have been a part of Scouting. The slogan of the Boy Scouts of America is a reminder that opportunities for acts of kindness are available every day, “Do a good turn daily.” Scouts pledge, “To help other people at all times.” The sixth point of the Scout Law is A Scout is kind. A Scout understands there is strength in being gentle. A Scout follows the Golden Rule, treating others as they want to be treated.

            Recently, the Boy Scouts of America has sustained a tarnished reputation. Pedophiles have hurt young people within the Scouting movement. The national organization has responded with new training and greater requirements for leadership. There is still significant room for improvement. That can happen only through leadership committed to the high principles of Scouting, especially kindness.

            Kindness is power!

            Last week I received an e-mail from friends who reside near Winston-Salem, North Carolina. They were concerned about “toxic behaviors and language being expressed in public meetings” in their neighborhood. They wanted me to suggest a clear, concise motto that would encourage people to be kind to each other, a few words that could be stamped on badges or screen printed on tee shirts.

            I spent some time thinking about this request for words that would promote kindness. Of course, passages of scripture came to mind.

“Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another.”

(Ephesians 4:32)

He has showed you, O man, what is good;

and what does the Lord require of you

but to do justice, and to love kindness,

and to walk humbly with your God?

Micah 6:8

            Kindness does not have a holier-than-thou attitude. Kindness is expressing empathy and understanding for where other people are in their life’s journey. Kindness is accepting other people without trying to change them. Kindness is helping someone out, not to make ourselves look good, but out of genuine compassion for a fellow human being.

            After thinking and praying about the request from our friends in North Carolina, I came up with a simple phrase. They thought it appropriate for their situation. I later posted it on Facebook. I can imagine these words emblazoned on a tee shirt.

KINDNESS IS CONTAGIOUS.

    CATCH IT! SPREAD IT!

            And then I remembered the lyrics of an old Glenn Campbell song. We often use these words as a prayer with our grandchildren. It is the prayer of my heart.

Let me be a little kinder

Let me be a little blinder

To the faults of those about me

Let me praise a little more

Let me be when I am weary

Just a little bit more cheery

Think a little more of others

And a little less of me.

Let me be a little braver

When temptation bids me waver

Let me strive a little harder

To be all that I should be

Let me be a little meeker

With the brother that is weaker

Let me think more of my neighbor

And a little less of me.

Let me be when I am weary

Just a little bit more cheery

Let me serve a little better

Those that I am strivin’ for

Let me be a little meeker

With the brother that is weaker

Think a little more of others

And a little less of me.

Here is a link to the song.

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

He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com

ICE COLD WATERMELONS

August 13, 2022

Before the COVID pandemic, Clare and I took an afternoon to cruise the blue-line backroad highways of the Upstate. We made a special effort to find good homegrown tomatoes. We stopped at several roadside stands and found delicious heirloom tomatoes at several of our favorite places. We also found a few figs, an abundance of late summer peaches, and early fall apples. At every stand, we saw watermelons. In one place, they were advertised as ice cold.

My mother was allergic to watermelon. Even a small spill of the sticky pink juice on her kitchen counter caused her to break out in hives, so we never had watermelons in our home. You no doubt have heard the wise old saying, “If Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.” In our family, that was the gospel truth.

As far as I know, eating watermelon is next to impossible without the juice running down your chin and off your elbows. If we had watermelon at all, it was in the backyard where everything contaminated by watermelon drippings could be washed away with the garden hose.

My brothers and sisters and I were, of course, exposed to watermelon in other circumstances. Most of our cousins enjoyed the summertime fruit and looked forward to a big wedge of watermelon with the same anticipation as a cone of homemade peach ice cream.

Elaine was one of my classmates at Cooperative Elementary School. Her birthday was right after the beginning of the new school year. She invited every student in Mrs. Pearl Fairbetter’s fourth-grade class to her party.

Even though I was scared of girls, Mama said I had to go to Elaine’s party. She was our neighbor. Not going to her party would be rude. Reluctantly, I went. There were thirteen girls there. I was the only boy who attended.

I guess Elaine’s daddy felt sorry for me. He told me I could help him cut the watermelon. That was just fine with me. I liked watermelon, and I didn’t like girls. It turns out the girls were too prissy to eat watermelon. Elaine’s daddy said I would have to eat the whole thing by myself. I ate as much as I could. I got as sick as a dog. I developed an aversion to watermelon that day. Since then, I have learned to enjoy them again sometimes, especially if they are ice cold.

Summer is watermelon time. Watermelon season extends well into September. Roadside produce stands prominently displayed bright green melons, tempting passersby to stop. 

Charles Fredric Andrus, a horticulturist at the United States Department of Agriculture Vegetable Breeding Laboratory in Charleston, South Carolina, set out to produce a watermelon resistant to disease and wilt. The result was the Charleston Gray. Its oblong shape and hard rind made it easy to stack and ship. Its adaptability meant it could be grown over a wide geographical area. It produced high yields and was impervious to the most severe watermelon diseases.

Today, farmers in approximately 44 states in the U.S. grow watermelon commercially. Almost all varieties have some Charleston Gray in their lineage.

Carolina Cross, a variety named for the state, has green skin and red flesh. About 90 days from planting seeds, fruit weighing between 65 and 150 pounds is ready to harvest. Carolina Cross is the variety of watermelon that produced an early world record weighing 262 pounds. It was grown in 1990 by Bill Carson of Arrington, Tennessee.

A cold slice of watermelon on a muggy summer day hits the spot. It is not uncommon for such an occasion to be followed by a seed-spitting contest. There are two categories of seed spitting proficiency – distance and accuracy.

 I remember a hike to Dead Horse Canyon with several of my buddies. The garden behind our house included a watermelon patch. We picked one medium-sized fruit that was ripe. We had to cross a creek on the way to the Canyon. In order to get the melon cool, we floated it in the stream. One of the guys thought it should be submerged all the way underwater. Where a wild cherry tree grew on the creek bank, we pried loose a root and pinned the watermelon under the snag beneath the surface of the water.

After a hot messy dirt clod fight in Dead Horse Canyon, we stopped by the creek to enjoy our cool watermelon. Something had eaten holes all through the ripe red fruit. Crawdads were crawling around inside the tunnels made through the flesh. My best guess is that a muskrat had his fill of our watermelon, leaving the rest to the crustacean critters. We left it floating in the stream to be devoured by hungry varmints.

Watermelon is as nutritious as it is delicious. Though it is 92% water, the red flesh is packed with vitamins and minerals. The deep red watermelon varieties are loaded with lycopene, an antioxidant that protects the heart and prostate and promotes skin health.

Citrulline is among the phytonutrients found in watermelon. It can relax blood vessels, much like Viagra does. It can help those who need increased blood flow to treat angina, high blood pressure, and other cardiovascular problems.

Red juice running down his chin, a lad took the last few bites of a piece of watermelon.

“Save me the rind!” his friend begged.

“Ain’t gonna’ be no rind!”

The inner rind of the watermelon, usually a light green or white color, is commonly pickled in the South. The rind is edible, has a unique flavor, and contains many nutrients. Sometimes used as a vegetable, the rind can be stir-fried, stewed, and pickled.

Recipe books have an interesting array of serving ideas. Watermelon salsa is a summer garnish. A carved watermelon hull can become a basket for fruit salad or a centerpiece for a party. The sweet red juice can be made into watermelon wine.

Two fellows, both unsuccessful in business, were out of work. It was early summer, and they needed to find a way to make some money.

“Let’s sell watermelons,” one suggested. “I have a pickup truck. We can go to Charleston and buy a load of early watermelons. Then we can haul them back up to Spartanburg and sell them before the grocery stores have any.”

“Great idea!” his friend said. “I have a cousin in Charleston who can tell us where to buy them.”

Off to the Lowcountry they went. They bought a truckload of watermelons at a bargain – two for a dollar.

Back in the Upstate, they sold every watermelon at fifty cents apiece.

When they tallied up, one said to the other. “Not counting the cost of gasoline, we broke exactly even.”

After a thoughtful pause, his business partner responded, “You know what? We’ve got to get a bigger truck.”

______________________________________________________________________________

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, storyteller, teacher, pastoral counselor, and 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. Please continue with your kindness and generosity. This week, please visit a local farmer’s market or certified produce stand. These are not nonprofit agencies, but buying local produce helps the local economy,

KENTUCKY FLOODS, NOAH’S ARK, AND THE CYPRESS KNEE MAN

August 7, 2022

He is like a tree planted by streams of water. (Psalm 1:3)

For several years, I served as the chaplain at Lake Cumberland State Boys Camp, an institution for juvenile delinquents near Monticello, Kentucky. The recent devastating floods in Eastern Kentucky hit close to home for me. The suffering and heartache of the good people of Appalachia remind me of the biblical story of Noah.

The Ark Encounter is a theme park in Williamston, Kentucky. In an ironic twist, the owners of the Ark Encounter have filed a claim with their insurance company after flood and storm damage. The biblical ark may have been able to withstand forty days and forty nights of flooding. When rains drenched the area of Northern Kentucky, the Ark Encounter property did not fare nearly as well as Noah’s original construction

The biblical account of the Deluge (Genesis 6:11–9:19) presents Noah as the hero of the Flood story. Noah is the patriarch who, because of his devotion and obedience, was chosen by God to reestablish the human race after his wicked contemporaries had perished in the Flood. Because he was a righteous man, Noah “found favor in the eyes of the Lord” (Genesis 6:8). God gave Noah divine warning of the impending disaster and made a covenant with him, promising to save him and his family. Noah was instructed to build an ark, and according to this narrative, the entire surviving human race descended from Noah’s three sons and their wives.

The theological meaning of the Flood is revealed following Noah’s survival. After safely landing on Mount Ararat, Noah built an altar on which he offered sacrifices to God. God made a covenant and set a rainbow as a visible sign in the sky. God also renewed his intention given at Creation. Humanity is charged with the stewardship of the earth and the created order. James Baldwin summarized the covenant promise.

God gave Noah a rainbow sign.

No more water, the fire next time.

Now, to shift gears, I present a riddle. Stay with me, please.

Which resident of the Lowcountry is tall, bald, and has knobby knees?

When I first heard the riddle, my Aunt Gladys came to mind. She lived with her husband, Cecil Youngblood, and a passel of children in a humble abode on the edge of the Okefenokee Swamp.

Gladys’ thinning gray hair probably came from raising those children. Maybe it was the frequent visits by alligators who crawled out of the swamp into her backyard, enticed by her free-range chickens. Cecil killed the gators and sold their hides for extra grocery money.

You can probably think of several acquaintances who fit the riddle’s description. But the correct answer is not a person at all. One of Aunt Gladys’ close neighbors was the bald cypress tree.

The Good Book says that on the third day of Creation, the Almighty created all the plants and trees, everything that bears fruit with seeds. Among these was the bald cypress tree, a Lowcountry native with knobby knees. 

The South Georgia swamp behind Aunt Gladys’ home was Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. Before that conservation effort in 1937, extensive logging operations had seriously depleted the boggy forest of cypress trees.

The coastal plain of the southeast is heavily populated with cypress trees. The bald cypress is closely related to the sequoias of California. This interesting evergreen grows best in the rich, wet soil along riverbanks, on the margin of wetlands, or in the middle of swamps. It can grow to a great age and large size, sometimes 150 feet high and 17 feet in diameter. Its durable wood is often called the wood eternal.

Cypress lumber resists insects and chemical corrosion as well as decay. It has a fragrance resembling that of cedar. It is a close-grained yellow or reddish wood, so resinous that it resists rotting even after prolonged submersion in water. Cypress products include coffins, acid tanks, docks, pilings, poles, and railroad ties.

Numerous interpretations of Noah’s Ark have been proposed, and a few have been built. Most were intended to be replicas, as close as possible to the Biblical Ark. The Biblical description of the ark is brief, beyond the basic measures of length, height, and width, and the exact design of any replica must be a matter of conjecture. Some imagine the ark as simply a wooden box with rectangular sides. Other reconstructions give it a rounded bow and stern.

The dimensions of Noah’s ark in Genesis, chapter 6, are given in cubits as 300 cubits long, 50 cubits wide, and 30 cubits high. An Ark replica would have to be about 450 feet long, 75 feet wide, and 45 feet tall to be considered full-scale.

When my brother Bob was still running the lumber yard, I wrote these dimensions on an index card. I handed it to Bob and asked him to figure out how much lumber would be needed for the building project without telling him where I got the figures.

After doing some quick calculations, Bob asked, “Kirk, what is this thing?”

I replied, “It’s a project I have been reading about.”

“This is a mighty big building! For me to supply the lumber, I’d have to bring eighteen flatbed trucks on the yard or eight full-size boxcars in here by rail.”

“It’s not a building,” I said. “Those are the dimensions of Noah’s ark straight from the Bible.”

We were both astounded.

The measurements of the Titanic were 850 feet x 92 feet x 64 feet. That is over five million cubic feet. According to Genesis, the ark was about one and a half million cubic feet.  

Ark Encounter theme park, located on a hill in Grant County, Northern Kentucky, is 510 ft long. Johan’s Ark in Dordrecht, Netherlands, is 450 feet long and carried on a platform made up of 25 barges. It is the only full-scale Ark replica that is floating and mobile.

The King James Translation of the Bible reports that God told Noah to build the ark of gopher wood. The New International Version translates the text, “Make an ark of cypress wood.” (Genesis 6:14)

The massive trunk of the stately cypress tree tapers upward from its wide, flaring base, where roots entangle to form supporting buttresses. The roots of cypress trees form knees that protrude above the surface of the water. Scientists believe these knobs provide aeration for the roots that are otherwise entirely submerged in water. They also balance the tall trees that might topple under their weight in the soggy soil.

The tree is called bald because, though a conifer, its leaves are shed in the fall. The largest remaining old-growth stand of bald cypress is at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, near Naples, Florida. Some of those trees are around 500 years of age.

For more than thirty years, my family and I were privileged to spend a week at Pawley’s Island each summer. One hot Saturday while on vacation there, I met Thomas, a big man, standing tall and stately like a cypress tree. He had large hands, callused from years of hard work. His skin, the color of ebony, glistened in the heat and humidity of the Lowcountry like wood with a coat of high gloss varnish. His voice was quiet and gentle, and he spoke in reverent tones with a deep Gullah accent.

Thomas began his life on a farm. Now an elderly gentleman, he still does some farming. “But,” he said, “years ago, the Lord called me into the swamp and showed me the beauty of cypress knees.” 

Several days a week, Thomas puts on a pair of high water boots and wades into the swamp, chainsaw in hand, to harvest these unusual root formations. “I cut them above the water line,” he said. “That way, the trees won’t die. They just make more knees.” Between McClellanville and Georgetown, Thomas is known as the Cypress Knee Man.

I met Thomas along Highway 17. His vintage Ford pickup was parked next to a hardware store. He displayed the fruits of his labor on a small island of grass between two palm trees. He had some cypress knees with the bark still attached and others that had been stripped and polished. Thomas had cypress knee lamps and cypress knee tables. He had a full display of walking sticks and walking canes. Many were crafted from oak, sweet gum, dogwood, or tupelo, as well as a few from cypress,

Thomas is an Associate Pastor at a Holiness Church in McClellanville. The following Sunday, he was to preach about a third of the three-hour service. The Lord who called him into the swamp also called him into the pulpit. God speaks to him, he says, nearly every day. 

“Just look at these cypress knees,” he said, motioning toward a hundred or so spread out on the grass. “You can see the hand of God in every one of them. Each one is different. I’ve seen cypress knees that look like the Lord kneeling in prayer or the Mother Mary holding baby Jesus. I’ve seen cypress knees that look like angels. Each one is different, and each one is a sermon.” 

On that hot Saturday at Pawley’s Island, I felt that I had been led to worship. The preacher was a man called Thomas. The text was cypress knees. The message was if you pay close attention, you’ll see the creative hand of God at work in the world around you, maybe in cypress knees, but especially in people like Thomas.

The scripture says, “Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord.”

The same could be said of the Cypress Knee Man.

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Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, storyteller, teacher, pastoral counselor, and 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. Please continue with your kindness and generosity. This week, please donate, as you are able, to Noble Tree Foundation, 424 E Kennedy Street, Spartanburg, South Carolina 29302.