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ON PAYING ATTENTION

January 3, 2021

Note to readers: 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 United Way of the Piedmont, 203 East Main Street, Spartanburg, South Carolina 29306 – (864) 582-7556.

Today on Epiphany Sunday, Christians recall the story of the strangers from the East who visited Bethlehem in search of a new king. The magi of ancient Persia were dreamers and stargazers. They were probably members of the Zoroastrian religion. They believed the heavens mirrored the events on earth. These sages from ancient Persia gazed into the sky and saw an unusually bright star.  They believed it was a sign that a royal person had been born. Following the star, they traveled to Bethlehem to honor the child and to offer tribute.  This is the stellar event that we commemorate on Epiphany.

In 1610, Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei pointed his telescope to the night sky and discovered the four moons of Jupiter – Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto. In that same year, Galileo found a strange oval surrounding Saturn, which later observations determined to be its rings. These discoveries changed how science understood the far reaches of our solar system.

Thirteen years later, in 1623, the solar system’s two giant planets, Jupiter and Saturn, traveled together across the sky. Jupiter caught up to and passed Saturn in an astronomical event known as a Great Conjunction. (NASA/ Bill Ingalls) 

On the cold, windy evening of December 21, 2020, I stood in my front yard with two of our grandchildren gazing into the clear night sky. It had been nearly 400 years since the planets passed this close to each other and almost 800 years since the alignment of Saturn and Jupiter occurred at night. When this happened just four days before Christmas, many people worldwide were able to witness this Great Conjunction.

From our vantage point on Earth, the huge giant planets appeared close together, but they were still hundreds of millions of miles apart in space. That the conjunction happened on the same day as the winter solstice may have been only coincidence, but it was a special moment for an old man and two girls.

Back inside our home, enjoying the warmth of a fire on our hearth, our eight-year-old asked, how did Galileo know what to look for?”

The six-year-old answered. “He just learned to pay attention.”

That wisdom from a little professor is absolutely true. Scientific inquiry begins with observation. I can think of no better example than my longtime friend Rudy Mancke. Rudy is a naturalist who pays close attention to the world around him. To stand with Rudy by a Piedmont farm pond, to walk with him down a path through the woods, or to venture into the tall weeds of powerline cut with Rudy is to learn the meaning of the word observation.

When you think about it, all great literature, whether prose or poetry, arises from a writer who observes life closely. The same is true of those who compose music or create visual art. When our son Erik received a journalism award, he was asked where he found his stories. “All you have to do is pay attention,” he said.

As we begin a New Year, this may be a resolution worth considering. Can I learn to pay attention to the people around me, to those I love as well as to the stranger who may need help? Can I learn to be more observant of the natural world, beginning in my own backyard? Can I learn to be more attuned to the children and the elderly, to those who are alone and to people who were described by Henry David Thoreau as “those who live their lives in quiet desperation.”

In the year ahead, we are sure to experience unforgettable moments.  

 The Greeks used kairos for those special times that are non-repetitive, the occasions that occur only once.  Birthdays and anniversaries are kairos moments. The word also refers to those unpredictable experiences that happen at just the right time. Being surprised by a rainbow or a sunset are examples.

Is anything better than a sandwich made with vine-ripened tomatoes? The secret is to pick the tomato at just the right time.

Homegrown tomatoes illustrate the meaning of the Greek word kairos. Kairos means that the time is right: even better, the time is ripe.

             When his five-year-old son asked him for an appointment, Wayne Oates had a startling moment of truth. Was he so busy that his own child felt he had to have an appointment to talk with him?

Dr. Oates coined the word workaholic. In his book, Confessions of a Workaholic (Word Publishing, 1971), Oates described his own addiction to work.

The meaning of the word workaholic has been skewed in the years since my teacher first used it.  Many of us crowd our calendars and our lives with activity. Few would deny that we are a nation under stress, much of it self-imposed. Now, in the midst of a global pandemic, anxiety levels have increased with fewer opportunities to reduce the pressure.  Still, there are lessons to be remembered and renewed.

Years ago, one of our Cub Scout sons needed to take a five-mile, in-town hike in order to complete the requirements for an achievement award.  I was required to hike with him, not by the Boy Scouts of America, but by Clare.  I had promised to hike with Scott, but my schedule for the week had become an avalanche of unfinished tasks.  Finally, on Friday afternoon, I threw in the towel, shucked my coat and tie, and put on khaki pants, a plaid shirt, and hiking boots for a five-mile stroll with a bright-eyed nine-year-old boy.

The sparkle in his blue eyes and the smile on his face told me I had made a good decision.  We were off together, dad and son, leaving behind mom and the four other children.  Children in large families often are treated as one member in a covey.  This was his special, private time with me and my time with him. It was a kairos moment.

We walked along the sidewalk away from our home. Just beyond the lumberyard, we came to the place where the sidewalk ends, to borrow the title of Shel Silverstein’s children’s book Where the Sidewalk Ends.

We paused at a railroad crossing to examine the once-familiar cross-buck sign lettered with the words: STOP! LOOK! LISTEN! 

It had been years since I had walked a railroad track.  My son and I followed the shiny steel rails.  The railroad ties were too close together for my steps and too far apart for his.  We both had to adjust our stride.  I kept a sharp eye and ear out for any train that might need to use our walkway.

Walking with a child is like walking with God. It requires a slower pace, and you see so much more.  A child sees things that adults miss – an old bottle cap, a shiny piece of quartz, a frog in a drainage ditch, a butterfly drinking from a wildflower.  I could soon see that this hike was more than a Cub Scout requirement.  I needed this late afternoon journey, too.

After a mile or so, we came to a place where a side track veered off the main railroad line. Together we followed the spur as it disappeared into a grove of pine trees.  As the railroad siding went further and further into the woods, pine saplings grew between the rails.  Wild daisies were blooming in the spaces between the crossties, a clear indication that no locomotive had rumbled along these rusty rails in quite some time.

Down in the grove of pines, we came upon an elderly Southern lady, an abandoned Southern Railway boxcar, one with wooden sides and a single door. We examined the vintage railroad car.  I walked around one side, and my adventurous Cub Scout went around the other side. 

When we met at the rear, he looked at me and said, “Dad, this train has been here a long time.” 

I thought, How brilliant of my Cub Scout son to recognize that this boxcar has been here a long time. 

In my daddy/teacher style, I asked, “How do you know it has been here a long time?”  I thought he would mention the plants growing between the rails or the accumulated rust on the tracks and wheels. 

Instead, he surprised me.  He pointed up to the ladder on the rear of the boxcar, “Dad, look on the ladder.  There’s a bird’s nest.  Dad, a bird can’t build a nest on a moving train.”

I was stunned! My nine-year-old had given me something profound to ponder. 

My son and I completed our hike. We walked a little more slowly. 

Later that night, I shared the story of the boxcar and the bird’s nest with Clare.  We agreed that just as a bird can’t build a nest on a moving train, neither could we build a family if we were always on the go.

The kairos moments in life may only happen once. If we miss them, they are gone forever. If we take the time to enjoy these moments, our lives are enriched forever.

When the time is ripe, we need to Stop! Look! Listen! We all need to be reminded to pay attention.

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor. He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com.

THE DAYS AFTER CHRISTMAS

December 26, 2020

Note to readers: 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 the place of worship of your choice. As a retired pastor, I can assure you that a year-end gift to a congregation of faith will be appreciated by those who encourage and serve others. Please be generous.

Is there anything as over as Christmas when it is over? Colorful wrapping paper and bright ribbons are reduced to trash as quickly as gifts are torn open. Fresh green trees that have graced our homes for weeks begin to drop needles until they are discarded along city streets, waiting like fallen soldiers to be collected by the body wagon.  Even artificial trees are stored in plastic containers the size of coffins. Decorations are packed away in the basement, the attic, or the garage until next year.

Christmas is over!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The cost of buying your true love all the gifts from “The 12 Days of Christmas” decreased this year primarily due to the global pandemic’s economic impact.

The combined cost for the dozen gifts featured in the final verse of the famed Christmas carol is $16,168, considerably less than in recent years. Last year’s price tag was $38,994.

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

The five golden rings named in the song’s verses also cost significantly more than in years past. But in 2020, the bottom dropped out of the wage scale for leaping lords, dancing ladies, pipers, and drummers.

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

  • One partridge in a pear tree: $210
  • Two turtle doves: $450
  • Three French hens: $210
  • Four calling birds: $600
  • Five gold rings: $945
  • Six geese-a-laying: $570
  • Seven swans-a-swimming: $13,125
  • Eight maids-a-milking: $58

As COVID-19 has caused the curtain to drop on most live performances, the last four items on the list are excluded from this year’s total cost. Advocates for the arts are not out of options for the performance lover on their guest list, as virtual performances provide a pandemic-proof alternative.  

  • Nine ladies dancing: $0
  • Ten lords-a-leaping: $0

This year maybe we should adopt a child’s take on this item as Ten lords-a-leaking.

  • Eleven pipers piping: $0
  • Twelve drummers drumming: $0

For Christmas 2020, the total price of all items on the list with all of their multiplications would be $105,561.80.

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

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

• The partridge in a pear tree represents the one true God.

• The two turtledoves are the Old and New Testament.

• The three French hens symbolize the Trinity.

• The four calling birds are the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

• Five golden rings are the first five books of the Bible, known as the Torah.

• Six geese a-laying refer to the six days of creation.

• Seven swans a-swimming are the seven sacraments.

• Eight maids a-milking are the eight beatitudes.

• Nine ladies dancing are the fruits of the Holy Spirit.

• Ten lords a-leaping represent the Ten Commandments.

• Eleven pipers piping are the eleven faithful apostles.

• Twelve drummers drumming are the twelve doctrines in the Apostle’s Creed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May it be so for each of you.

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor. His new book and first novel, December Light 1916, is available at all bookstores and online booksellers. He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com.

THE BELLS OF CHRISTMAS

December 19, 2020

Note to readers: 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 the Children’s Advocacy Center, 100 Washington Place, Spartanburg, South Carolina,  29302, (864) 515-9922.

In any other year,  hardy souls across the Upstate would have ventured out in the chilly days of December to do Christmas shopping. These folks would have been greeted by the familiar sound of bells ringing. The Salvation Army’s Red Kettle Campaign is a seasonal tradition each year. Willing volunteers would be on the job ringing with gusto to help celebrate Advent and to collect money for the needy in our community. I know members of the Rotary Club have offered to take a turn ringing the bells, but not in 2020.

This is the season for bells. Inside stores and shopping malls, the strains of a Christmas song welcomed eager customers to the cathedral of capitalism. “Sleigh bells ring. Are you listening?” Never mind if the temperature outside was in the sixties.

            Several years ago, I wrote a Christmas story entitled “A Bell for Victoria.” The tale was set in Hendersonville, North Carolina. The bells of St. James Episcopal Church played a key. The church is one of a few in the Carolinas to feature change ringing.

The tower of St. James houses eight bells arranged according to the progression of a musical scale. They are rung by a team of eight with a tower captain calling signals much like a football quarterback.  Each member of the team rings one bell by pulling a rope attached to it, high in the tower above.

Change ringing derives its name from the varying patterns in which the bells are sounded.  The number of sequences possible for eight bells, like those at St. James, is 40,320. The art of ringing these changes originated in English churches several hundred years ago.

English handbells are much more common as a form of church music usually played by a handbell choir. Members may ring up to four finely-crafted bells, two in each hand. In a church I formerly served, our handbell choir was named Clarion Sounds. They practiced every week. The sound that handbells create in a worship service is divine. The precision with which the ensemble works as a group is fascinating.

Bells are often associated with weddings. Whether rung as a carillon in a tower, or on brass handbells, or simulated on an organ, the chiming of the hour may precede the entry of the bride. At the conclusion of a wedding ceremony, the joyful pealing of bells may announce the new union.

On the occasion of their fiftieth-anniversary celebration, a couple told me that “Silver Bells” was their favorite Christmas song. They had included the song in their Christmas wedding ceremony.

Bells may also be used at funerals. The tolling of a single stationary bell rung by a heavy striker produces a stately sound. Sometimes large bells are tolled slowly during funeral processions.

Death may come at any season. A Christmas funeral can be particularly difficult. When a widow planned the funeral for her husband, she requested that the organist play “Jingle Bells” as the casket was taken from the sanctuary. The musician looked surprised, but the bereaved woman explained that the song was her husband’s favorite. At the service, the organist did her best to make the music sound solemn.

After the funeral, the organist said, “I hope the music pleased you.”

“Everything was fine,” said the widow, “but that last song was not the one I wanted.”

“But you said you wanted ‘Jingle Bells.’”

“Did I say that? I meant, ‘When They Ring Those Golden Bells.’”

Some of our best-loved Christmas songs include bells as a part of the cheerful lyrics. But Christmas is not necessarily a season to be jolly. Many people have experienced deep sorrow at this season.

In 1843, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, a widower, married Frances Appleton. Henry and Fanny settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and eventually had six children. They were a happy family until the Civil War abruptly destroyed their serenity. It violently interrupted the lives of everybody, in the North and in the South.

In the summer of 1861, Fanny Longfellow was melting sealing wax on an envelope when the folds of her long dress caught fire. Her dress ablaze, she ran into Henry’s study. Desperately trying to smother the flames with a small rug and his own body, Henry was severely burned on his face, arms, and hands. Fanny, whose burns were much more severe, died the following morning.

Longfellow was despondent after his wife’s death. Enduring Christmas without Fanny, Henry captured in his journal the sentiments so many have felt through the ages: “How inexpressibly sad are all holidays.”

In early December 1863, Henry received word that his oldest son, Charles, a lieutenant in the Army of the Potomac, had been severely wounded. Although Charles would survive, his recovery at that time was uncertain.

Longfellow greeted Christmas with a heavy heart that year. He had lost his wife, his son had nearly died, and the country continued waging war on itself.

The bells that Henry heard ringing that Christmas inspired him to write the poem that would eventually become the carol “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”

Longfellow’s personal difficulties and the atrocities of war give the words to the carol a deeper meaning.

I heard the bells on Christmas day

Their old familiar carols play,

And wild and sweet the words repeat

Of peace on earth, good will to men.

I thought as now this day had come,

The belfries of all Christendom

Had rolled along the unbroken song

Of peace on earth, good will to men.

The third verse takes on a much darker tone, reflecting Longfellow’s somber mood.

And in despair, I bowed my head:

“There is no peace on earth,” I said,

“For hate is strong and mocks the song

Of peace on earth, good will to men.

Even in his grief, the fourth verse of the carol offers a reason for hope.

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep;

“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;

The wrong shall fail, the right prevail

With peace on earth, good will to men.


            During Advent, the words to Longfellow’s carol serve as a reminder of one of the most important themes of Christmas. Peace is a gift of grace to the human soul.

Many are familiar with the Hebrew word shalom, translated as peace. A popular understanding of peace is the absence of conflict or war, but it means so much more in Hebrew.  Shalom means to be safe in mind, body, or estate.  It speaks of completeness, fullness, or a type of wholeness that encourages kindness and generosity of spirit.
            This year, some Christmas bells have fallen silent during the pandemic. But that does not mean that peace has been diminished. True peace is a spiritual condition, and nothing in all the world can take that away.

That is reason enough to ring the bells of Christmas.

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor. His new book and first novel, December Light 1916, is available at all bookstores and online booksellers. He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com