Skip to content

THE EMPTY CHAIR

December 4, 2021

During these difficult days for many people, Clare and I have considered what we might do to help those in need. We have decided to continue our support for the charitable nonprofit organizations that are serving our community. Each week in this space, I will ask you to consider helping one charity. During this holiday season, please volunteer or donate, as you are able, to your place of worship or to your favorite charity. Thank you.

The headline caught my eye, “Man Spends Christmas Eve in Septic Tank.” In an article dated December 26, 2007, the Associated Press carried the humorous and frightening story.

Robert Schoff, a 77-year-old man from Des Moines, Iowa, spent part of Christmas Eve stuck upside down in the opening of his septic tank, with his head inside and his feet kicking in the air.

“I don’t think I could have stood staying in there much more,” he said as he recovered from his ordeal. “It wasn’t good! It was a stinky holiday! I’ll tell you what,” Schoff said on Christmas Day, “It was the worst Christmas Eve I’ve ever had.”

Schoff reached into the tank on Christmas Eve in an effort to clear a clogged drain. He lost his balance and became wedged in the opening. The elderly Schoff shouted for help, but in this upside-down position, his voice was muffled.  It was more than an hour before his wife, Toni, walked by a window and noticed his feet flailing in the air.

“I saw these kicking feet. I ran to him, but I couldn’t get him out,” Mrs. Schoff said.

She called 911. County sheriff’s deputies arrived and yanked her husband out of the tank.

“I thought it was the end of my life,” Schoff said.

What a way to go that would have been!

For all of our careful planning, the holidays often confront us with unexpected crises. I spent most of one Christmas Eve morning in the surgical chair of an ear, nose, and throat specialist. I had a severe nosebleed. The physician cauterized my sinuses. For well over two hours, he packed them with gauze. It was not the best Christmas Eve for me, for the physician, or for our families. Still, it was not as bad as Robert Shoff’s plight.

The heightened stress of the season seems to make some folks more accident-prone. I have a friend who spent the last two weeks of December on crutches after stepping in a hole while caroling in his neighborhood.

By far, the most difficult holidays are those times when we are separated from loved ones. An empty chair symbolizes the painful absence at the family table.

I vaguely remember Christmas 1948 when I was four years old. The entire Neely family gathered on Christmas Eve for our annual Christmas dinner. Following the meal, we recited the story of Jesus’ birth from Luke 2.  We sang Christmas carols, Pappy led a prayer, and we exchanged gifts. That night my little sister Beth and I stayed with Mammy and Pappy.

Mama was at the hospital giving birth to her third child. My brother Bill was born on December 24 that year. According to my aunts and uncles, I spent much of that Christmas looking for Mama. Jesus was born, and Santa Claus came, but Mama was not there.    

The holidays are frequently tinged with grief.  The season has often been a bittersweet experience for our family, a mixture of joy and sadness. In fact, when you are a part of a large family, you learn that life itself is a dichotomy. Ambivalent feelings about any event abound. Humor and sadness, laughter and tears, mingle at many family gatherings.

In the Neely family, it is rarely possible to have everybody together for any occasion. I remember a birthday party for one of my brothers-in-law. Most of the family was present except for the honoree. He had suddenly come down with the flu and was confined to quarters while the rest of us partied on.

Some of us who are physicians and ministers are frequently called away from family events to fulfill our responsibilities in the community.  So, we have learned to be grateful for those who can gather. Celebrations still happen even when there are empty chairs at the table.

There were several holiday seasons in my grandparent’s family when three sons and two future sons-in-law were serving in World War II. At the same time, another son and his family were far away on the mission field in South America.

At almost every celebration, a few are absent. A pregnant mother and her family may be unable to travel during the holidays. Sometimes a student is traveling on foreign study. Our son Scott spent his junior year at Wofford College, living with a family in France. The following year he was in India during the holidays. The Christmas after our son Erik’s death, our son Kris traveled aboard a hammock boat on the Amazon River.

I will never forget the December when I stood beside an open grave with grieving parents three different times in three consecutive weeks as tiny caskets were lowered into the ground. The deaths of those children meant that their bereaved families would mourn a painful absence during the holidays. One of those tiny coffins was for our infant niece, Katherine. Our entire family was affected by her death.

I know of a home where the decorated Christmas tree remains in the living room throughout the year. The tree is, of course, artificial, but the life situation that prompted the custom is real. After they had put up their tree at the beginning of the Christmas season, the onset of a terminal illness besieged the husband and father. At the end of the holidays, they just could not muster the energy to take the tree down. Over time, their reason for leaving their Christmas tree in place changed.  “My husband got sick the first week of December 1989 and died twenty months later in August 1991,” said the widow. “The whole time he was dying, we enjoyed the tree together. It gave us a feeling of peace and comfort. So, we decided just to leave it up all the time.”

Clare and I have experienced some of the joy and the sorrow that Christmas can bring. Our oldest child, Mike, was born on Christmas Day in 1970. As we awaited his birth, the season of Advent was filled with anticipation and hope. The uncertainty and apprehension of becoming new parents were part of our emotional mix. Christmas was a day of fulfillment for us.

Thirty years later, our second son, Erik, died two weeks before Thanksgiving. Christmas that year was a season of deep grief for us. Still, we were able to find a measure of peace and joy mingled with our tears.

November in South Carolina is usually a mild month.  Not until after Thanksgiving does the weather begin to really feel like winter. Erik died on November 15, 2000, in Charleston.  The temperature in the Lowcountry was warm that day.  We returned from Charleston to our home in the Upstate with the sky bright and sunny.  But the day of the funeral dawned grey, cold, and damp.  Temperatures continued to fall through the day.  By the time we arrived at the church for the funeral, light snow was falling.  When we went to the cemetery for the committal service, the ground was covered with snow.

Some expressed regret that the weather was inclement on the day of our son’s service.  We felt differently. In our imagination, we thought that Erik had put in a request to the Almighty. “Lord, you know this will be a hard day for my family.  Could you do something to surprise them?” 

We viewed the snow as a symbol of hope. We interpreted the snow as a gentle touch from God, a gift of grace in our grief.  Many of the Christmas cards and Christmas presents we received that year included a snow theme. As Christmas approached, we decided to decorate our Christmas tree with only snowflakes and snow ornaments.  Hand-cut snowflakes adorned our windows.

In Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, Jo expresses this impending grief in the face of the illness of her sister Beth and the absence of their father during the Civil War. “Our dear Beth came back to us, although the fever had weakened her heart forever. We did not know then that a shadow had fallen. We prepared for another Christmas without Father.”

One of the truths that Clare and I have learned is that grief, especially following the death of a young person, casts a long shadow. Our grief for Erik lingers and is heightened in every holiday season. His name and our sense of loss crop up on every festive occasion.

Many families will be grieving the death of loved ones this holiday season, many due to the pandemic.

But there is another truth.

Erik’s widow, our daughter-in-law, June, majored in art at Furman University. She is an accomplished artist. After Erik’s death, June painted a stunning watercolor. It was a table set for a party, but it included an empty chair, a poignant reminder of absence. The painting is also a vivid depiction of hope. On the table are party hats. Streamers and balloons adorn the room.

Now, June is remarried to Ian. They have four beautiful children whom we count among our grandchildren.

The chair is still empty, but the celebration of life continues.

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

                    His novel, December Light 1916, is a cherished holiday book.

It is available at all bookstores and online booksellers.

He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com

A KENTUCKY THANKSGIVING

November 27, 2021

During these difficult days for many people, Clare and I have been considering what we might do to help those in need. We have decided to continue our support for the charitable nonprofit organizations that are serving our community. Each week in this space, I will ask you to consider helping one charity. This week, please volunteer or donate, as you are able, to Spartanburg Soup Kitchen, 136 Forest Street, Spartanburg, South Carolina 29306, (864) 585,0022.

As part of my clinical training in pastoral counseling, I worked for three years as a chaplain at Kentucky State Hospital for the Mentally Ill. This is a Thanksgiving story from that time in my life that I have shared many times. It is an account of an experience that I had while I was in clinical training for pastoral work. Some of you have heard it or read it before. Now, after more than fifty-five years of ministry, it is still a pivotal event in my understanding of gratitude.  

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. It is the least commercialized of all our celebrations. For most of us, the fourth Thursday of November is a day to pause and express our gratitude before Black Friday and Cyber Monday, identified as the busiest shopping days of the year. The brief respite is a time for reflection, for heartfelt appreciation, and for nostalgia. One of my fondest Thanksgiving memories is a Kentucky Thanksgiving with a young man I’ll call Bobby. I have changed his name to protect his identity.

Bobby was fourteen years old. He was large for his age but shy and withdrawn. His severe acne, unkempt hair, broken front tooth, smudged glasses, and distant stare were external evidence of a troubled mind and a broken heart. 

Bobby was a patient in the adolescent unit at Central State Hospital, a mental hospital in La Grange, Kentucky, where I worked as a student chaplain while I was in seminary. Though Bobby was diagnosed as chronically depressed and borderline schizophrenic, he had moments when his intellectual functioning exceeded that of the hospital staff. 

Bobby was one of the patients who prompted the comment, “The main difference between the staff and the patients in this hospital is that the patients get better.”

As Thanksgiving approached during those golden autumn days in Kentucky, the staff in the adolescent unit at Central State Hospital was delighted to learn that almost all the teenage patients would be given a three-day home visit for the holiday, all, that is, except Bobby. The treatment team had determined that Bobby was not ready to function for three days away from the hospital. His home situation had been assessed as being so dysfunctional that he could be allowed no more than a one-day visit accompanied by a hospital staff member. If Bobby went home for Thanksgiving Day, he would have to return to the hospital that same night.

Other staff members had looked forward to having Thanksgiving Day away from the hospital. I volunteered to accompany Bobby to his home in the Kentucky mountains for the day. The social worker contacted his mother and his grandparents to arrange the visit. I would drive him to his mother’s house for Thanksgiving dinner and bring him back to the hospital before nightfall. Clare and I planned to have our family Thanksgiving meal after I returned to our home that evening.

Thanksgiving Day dawned clear and cold. I met Bobby at the adolescent unit early. I wondered what this visit to his home would mean to him.  Those dark vacant eyes, practically concealed behind the dirty glasses, revealed no excitement. The sunny Thanksgiving morning and the beautiful Kentucky countryside made our three-hour drive through the Bluegrass Region into the mountains a scenic trip. 

Though I attempted several times to strike up a conversation about Bobby’s family and their usual Thanksgiving celebration, Bobby responded with silence. His only conversation was to give a running commentary on the make and model of every automobile on the highway. He knew details about many cars, such as engine size and horsepower. The only significant exchange between us was his assertion that I had not made a wise selection when I had purchased my used car. I should have chosen a Ford Mustang, he advised.

When we arrived in the coal mining mountain town, Bobby directed me to his mother’s house. A note of anticipation arose in his voice as we approached the modest home. The frame house suffered from neglect. Shingles were missing from the roof, and paint was peeling from the wooden siding. The screen door was completely off the hinges, propped against the house. Bobby said, “Her truck is gone.  She’s not here.” His face showed no emotion; his voice disclosed disappointment. Bobby did not knock on the door. He just opened the unlocked door to search the house. No one was home.

“Could she be at your grandparents’ house?” I asked. 

“We can see,” replied Bobby. 

We drove for several miles on a winding back road to his grandparent’s home. The log house perched on a mountainside showed no sign of life. “Maybe we missed them,” suggested Bobby. We took the twisted trip back into town to his mother’s home. No one was there. I offered to buy Thanksgiving dinner for the two of us, not knowing where I could find a restaurant, much less a restaurant open on the holiday. 

Bobby refused my offer. “I’ll fix something,” he said.

Inside the small kitchen, I watched as my fourteen-year-old host opened the refrigerator. It was well stocked with beer, but the food supply was sparse.  Bobby took bologna and a bowl of cold grits from the shelf. In a large iron skillet, he fried thick slices of bologna. In the remaining grease, he browned slices of cold grits. I fixed two glasses of water. We sat in ladder-back chairs at an old card table. I quoted Psalm 100 and offered a blessing. Bobby and I ate together in almost total silence. Then we cleaned up the dishes together. When it was time to leave, we closed the door, leaving it unlocked as we had found it.

The three-hour drive back to the institution seemed interminable. Our only conversation was about automobiles. At one point, I tried to allow Bobby to speak about his hurt. 

“I’m sorry we didn’t get to be with your family.” 

Bobby replied stoically, “It’s okay.” Then he commented on a passing Pontiac.

Just before sunset, Bobby and I climbed the back stairs to the adolescent unit at Central State Hospital. A childcare worker unlocked the door to allow for our entry. As I prepared to leave, Bobby turned toward me, threw his arms around my neck, and said, “This is the best Thanksgiving I have ever had!”

On Thanksgiving Day, our family repeats together the words from the Bible, “Enter into his gates with Thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise: be thankful unto him and bless his name.” (Psalm 100:4) 

When I hear that scripture, I remember the Thanksgiving meal of fried bologna and cold grits, shared at a card table in a rundown house in the mountains of Kentucky. 

I am reminded that Thanksgiving is not what is on our table.  Thanksgiving is what is in our hearts.

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

His novel, December Light 1916, is a cherished holiday book.

It is available at all bookstores and online booksellers.

He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com.

THE LIGHT BREAKS THROUGH

November 27, 2021

During these difficult days for many people, Clare and I have considered what we might do to help those in need. We have decided to continue our support for the charitable nonprofit organizations that are serving our community. Each week in this space, I will ask you to consider helping one charity. During this season of light, please volunteer or donate, as you are able, to your place of worship or to your favorite charity. Thank you.

Tyger River Presbyterian Church is hosting an Advent art display from the first Sunday of Advent, November 28, through Epiphany, January 6. The theme of the art presentation, “The Light Breaks Through,” is appropriate to the season of Advent.

The concept of light breaking through has solid Biblical roots. The Book of Genesis declares, “In the beginning …. The earth was without form, and void, and darkness was on the face of the deep…. Then God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” The magnificence of creation began with light breaking through the chaos.

In Hebrew scripture, the Word of God gives illumination, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” (Psalm 119:105) The prophet Isaiah says the people of Israel are to give guidance to others. “I will also give You as a light to the nations, That You should be My salvation to the ends of the earth.” (Isaiah 49:6)

The Christian tradition continues and amplifies many Jewish theological concepts. The idea of light breaking through the darkness is one shining example. It is from Isaiah that the Christian Church has identified passages that foretell a coming Messiah.

The people who walked in darkness

Have seen a great light;

Those who dwelt in the land of the shadow of death,

Upon them, a light has shined. (Isaiah 9:2)

The theme of the light breaking through continues in the writings of the Apostle John. In the prologue to the Fourth Gospel, John sounds the decisive note of Christian theology when he proclaims about Jesus. “In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never overcome it.” (John 1:4-5)

Several years ago, I taught an upper-level religion class at the University of South Carolina Upstate entitled Celtic Religion through the Ages. Our study took us through an examination of ancient Celtic religion, followed by a transition to early Celtic Christianity.

Most of what we know about the ancient Celts has come through two academic disciplines. One is European archaeology. Some of the earliest archaeological evidence of the Celts was found in the salt mines of Hallstatt, Austria, dating back to the Early Iron Age, circa 800–450 Before the Common Era (B.C.E.).

The second discipline is the study of the classical literature of Greek and Roman writers who knew of the Celtic tribes. These early testaments describe the Celts as feared warriors. Men and women fought together. The men often went into battle wearing only blue body paint and a neck ring. They carried a shield and a short sword. Julius Caesar gives a detailed description of these people and their culture. Clearly, he had much respect for them.

Though generally regarded as uncivilized barbarians who practiced pagan religion, the Celts lived in an organized society. The Druids were their religious leaders. They served as priests and prophets, as judges, and as philosophers. Spiritual practices centered on the solar and lunar rhythms of the universe. Summer and winter solstice, spring and autumn equinox, were observed with important religious rituals sometimes involving human sacrifice.

As the winter solstice approached, the Druids feared that the sun’s light would recede from the earth. The diminishing light meant that the world was doomed to darkness. The Yule log kept the fire burning, oil lamps illuminated the house, and evergreens were brought inside to encourage the sun to return.

The practice of bringing light into the homes of the Celts became the root of two of our most important religious observances of this season.

Beyond the Biblical account, both Jews and Christians find light to be an appropriate symbol of hope, which is intertwined with faith. The seasons of Advent and Hanukkah almost always coincide. Often, Christmas falls within the eight-day observance of Hanukkah. Christians mark the days of Advent by lighting candles in an Advent wreath. They gather for worship in churches on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

Each evening during Hanukkah, Jewish families celebrate the holiday by lighting candles in a menorah, a nine-branched candelabra. This year Hanukkah coincides with the first week of Advent. The Jewish celebration begins at sundown on November 28 and continues through December 6.

The Gospel of John (10:22) records an interesting event from the life of Jesus. “Then came the Feast of Dedication at Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was in the temple area walking in Solomon’s Colonnade.” This passage indicates that Jesus observed Hanukkah, also called the Feast of Dedication or the Festival of Lights.

The origin of Hanukkah dates to 164 B.C.E., when Syria dominated Israel.  Antiochus Epiphanes, the king from Syria, was a harsh, cruel tyrant.  Jewish worship, including the observance of Passover and the Sabbath, was forbidden under Antiochus. Idols representing Greek gods were set up in the Temple, and the Torah scrolls were burned. Antiochus slaughtered a pig on the altar of the Temple, committing what the Book of Daniel refers to as the “abomination of desecration.”  The Syrians murdered thousands of Jewish dissidents who were steadfastly loyal to the Jewish faith.

Under the leadership of Yehuda, the Hammer, better known as Judas Maccabees, the Jews defeated an army of 40,000 Syrians.  Judas and the Maccabees liberated Jerusalem. They entered the Temple and cleansed it of idols. They also built and dedicated a new altar to replace the one desecrated by Antiochus.

A part of the dedication was the relighting of the eternal flame representing God’s presence in the Temple. However, there was only enough consecrated olive oil to keep the light burning for one day. By Jewish law, eight days were required to consecrate new oil. Miraculously, the small cruse of oil continued to burn for eight days.

Hanukkah, which means dedication, commemorates this divine blessing.  It is an eight-day festival of thanksgiving and rededication for the Jewish community. Jewish families light candles in the menorah each evening. The center taper is the servant candle and is used to light the other eight, each in turn as the days pass. By the eighth night, all candles are burning.

The scriptures speak of God as “the light in whom there is no darkness.”  For Christians, Christmas celebrations include symbols of that heavenly light: the star of Bethlehem and the candles in an Advent wreath. For Jews, the symbols of divine light are the Star of David and the menorah candles. In this season of light, we recognize and respect both traditions.

My youngest brother, Bob, died on November 9 of this year. Bob was a man of many talents. He was a gifted Bible teacher, a faithful pastor, and a delightful storyteller. He ran the family lumberyard until it closed in 2008. He then became an Associate Pastor at First Baptist Church of Spartanburg. Bob was always a source of light for people of all ages, especially for those going through difficult times.

Just after he was diagnosed with cancer, I shared with Bob the book Learning to Walk in the Dark by Barbara Brown Taylor. It is a spiritually enriching read for many people. One of her suggestions is that we regain our sense of lunar rhythm. We have flooded our world with artificial light to the point that we have lost touch with the experiences of night and especially an appreciation of the moon.

We both recalled a childhood memory of a fishing calendar on the wall of the lumberyard that had the phases of the moon indicated. Another memory was reading the Old Farmer’s Almanac. Then, we called to mind David Tanner.

David Tanner worked for our Uncle Asbury, who was a building contractor. David did all kinds of jobs for my uncle, from screeding poured concrete to laying brick. David was not a skilled carpenter, but he helped other carpenters frame many a house. He was always cheerful, usually singing, and he was a diligent worker.

David lived on the King Line behind the old stockyard, located not far from our home. Though crippled with arthritis, he would walk from his home, past our house, on his way to the lumberyard.  There he purchased his daily Coca-Cola. 

Often David would stop at our house, sit in a rocking chair on the front porch to enjoy his Coca-Cola, and then shuffle on to his home.  Many mornings I would take a mug of coffee and join David on the porch. Those were the times when I received my philosophy lesson.

David was quite a churchman. He loved going to church, and he especially enjoyed singing in the choir.  David’s church built a new sanctuary. He invited me to come to the dedication. My dad and I went together to the Sunday afternoon service, all three hours of it.  

After the service, David showed us around the church in which he took so much pride.  He explained that the church didn’t have stained glass windows. I will never forget the way that he expressed it.

“We don’t have none of them windows with people on ’em that the light shines through.” 

What a phrase!  “People that the light shines through.” 

When you know people like Bob Neely and David Tanner, you don’t need stained glass windows.  The light breaks through in many ways, often in people like David and my brother Bob. They were the kind of people that the light shines through.

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

His novel, December Light 1916, is a cherished holiday book.

It is available at all bookstores and online booksellers.

He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com.