Saint Valentine

The story of Jesus and his encounter with a rich young ruler appears in Matthew 19:16–30, Mark 10:17–31 and Luke 18:18–30. As with the young man in the story it is a struggle for each of us to know how to use our material wealth to serve others. The story says that when the young ruler went away sad because of his attachment to his wealth, Jesus had compassion on him. I think Jesus understood his dilemma, as I think he understands our struggle with material possessions.

In February we celebrate the life and ministry of the 3rd century Saint Valentine. Like the 4th century Saint Nicholas, Saint Valentine cared for the poor in his community. We celebrate their ministries, and yet we find it difficult to emulate their lives. It is fun to give gifts and to celebrate love, but we find it difficult to commit our entire lives to Christ.

The last verse of the hymn “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross has always held profound meaning to me:

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.

When we think of the grace that God has poured out on us, it is difficult to begin to imagine how we might repay that gift of love. I believe like Saint Valentine and Saint Nicholas the only way we are able to respond to the gift of love, is to love others the way we have been loved.

I hope that on this February 14 we can celebrate the gift of love by loving others. In particular those who need our love, our compassion and our care. Particularly the disenfranchised, the strangers among us and those who go without the material blessings we experience.

May God give you a blessed Valentines’ Day this year,

Bill

Deployed With PDA-NRT

I’ve shared the story of visiting with Madge Chamness the Saturday  before I was to leave to go to Florida, after Hurricane Maria, with the PDA National Response Team. I said, “Madge,  I may not be with you when you die.” Madge’s response when I told her was, “Bill, you go to Florida, they need you worse than I do.” Her response was a typical Madge response, On Tuesday morning, September 12, 2017, when her daughter Susan called me and said, “Bill, mama died,” my initial response was, “I need to get out of my trip to Florida.” And Susan said, “No Bill, mama was very specific. You go to Florida and we’ll have the funeral when you get back.” Madge is not atypical of the folks at First Presbyterian Church, Greenville, NC; they all
have a heart for serving Christ and doing what is right.

On Sunday September 16, 2018 Jim Kirk called and asked If I could go to South Carolina to respond to Hurricane Florence. My response was, “Let me check my calendar and I’ll get back to you.” I called both my Clerks of Sessions, Gwen Gibson (United) and Lois Clark
(Fairview). They both felt that I should go. On Saturday Imogene Clippard, had died, I called her granddaughter, Caroline Clippard and let her know about my deployment. On Monday I meet with Caroline and planed Imogene’s service with Edyth Pruitt about conducting the service.

On Sunday afternoon Lois Clark called to let me know that her and Jerry’s son Brian Clark had died. At that point I began to rethink my going to South Carolina. Lois encouraged me to go on, “Edyth can do the service.” She said. So I went to serve the people in New Harmony Presbytery.

I have been on the National Response Team for PDA since it began in 1996. But I could not do this work if it were not for church folks like Madge, Lois and Jerry and Caroline who respond by saying, “No you go Bill, we’ll be alright.” Nor could I do it without colleagues
like Edyth, who step up and cover me in the times am asked to go.

The National Response Team of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance is composed of only about 120 folks. Yet each of us has a spouse, a church, our friends, and our colleagues who pray for us, support us and say “You go we’ve got you covered. I thank God for all of you. You show me each time I am deployed with PDA what the church really is.

Bill Neely

Rev. Grady Nutt

Years ago while serving as the campus minister at Carson Newman University in Tennessee, I became friends with the Rev Grady Nutt. Grady had grown up in Texas, attended Wayland College and then graduated from Baylor University and then from Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville Kentucky.  After serving as a youth pastor, associate pastor and pastor of small churches in Texas and Kentucky, Grady became assistant to the president of Southern Seminary for recruitment. Grady had a great wit about him and loved telling stories on himself and others. Most of his stories were about the church and pastors.

Grady later became such a popular speaker that he was recruited to be the preacher on the television show Hee Haw. Grady would appear and tell one of his stories or jokes about being in the church often while sitting in the barber’s chair. Later Grady had his own television show in which he played the part of a minister, and each one of the episodes was about something funny in the life of his congregation.

In my second year at Carson Newman, I invited Grady to speak in chapel. When I recruited Grady, I asked if he would bring his wife Eleanor with him so that they could do a dialogue about their marriage and their commitment to one another. Of all of the speakers who came to Carson Newman, including the other times Grady came, I think this was the most inspirational because he and Eleanor were extremely candid about their relationship and the work it took for them to keep their marriage a healthy growing relationship. Some of the students were upset because it was a serious rather than funny chapel program, but I felt that it was important for the students to experience the work it takes to build a happy marriage.

The last time I was with Grady was shortly after I had been notified by the administration that I would not be continued at Carson Newman. Sitting at a local pizza joint, I reached to pick up the bill because, after all, Grady was my guest. Grady took the bill from me and with a wink said, “Let me get this.  After all, I have a job and you don’t .” That small gesture was enough to let me know his concern for me and my family.  I remember how in that moment Grady did one of the most pastoral things he could have done. I have carried that kindness with me for many years and I remind myself that often it is in the small gestures that we make the most impact.

In 1982 while flying back on a charter plane from a speaking engagement, Grady and the two pilots were killed when the plane crashed. I lost a friend that day but I did not lose sight of what that friendship meant to me.  I thank God for putting folks like Grady Nutt in my life.  Let us all pray that God will give us the opportunity to be kind to someone, so that it may make a difference in what they are going through.

Bill Neely.

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A Thick Juicy Tomato Sandwich

When I was growing up in Spartanburg, South Carolina, every spring we put in a family garden. We planted rows of corn, snap beans, green beans, and okra.  At the top of the garden we planted about two rows of tomatoes.  We put up stakes and strung cord for vine tomatoes.  We also planted yellow tomatoes and standard reds.  I remember the year Dad came home with a new variety, the Big Boy tomato, developed to give a larger and juicier fruit.  “It will fit better on a slice of bread,” Dad said.

Tomatoes are my favorite fruit.  They are sweet and make the best sandwich for a hot summer afternoon.  My Dad’s favorite recipe for tomato sandwiches was to spread two slices of Sunbeam Bread with Duke Mayonnaise, salt and pepper each piece of bread and then add three to four peeled tomatoes, sliced about a quarter of an inch thick.  These sandwiches he said were best eaten while standing over the kitchen sink.

Wanda’s father loved tomatoes too.  In the spring he would give us several five gallon buckets with a tomato plant in each one. “Take these home with you, Bill,” he would say, “water them and keep them on the side of the house that gets the morning sun. I have mixed cow manure with the dirt, so they will not need fertilizing.” Later in the summer he would remind me that plants like water.  Eventually he would share his tomatoes with us, having given up on my horticultural skills.

I remember my father-in-law sitting at the kitchen table picking seeds out of a tomato he was eating and placing them on a napkin.  “What are you doing?” I asked. “This tomato is so good,” he said, “I thought I would save some seed to plant in the spring.” He would die just a few days later, but he had set an example for all who knew him to never give up on life.  He had survived so much in his life.  His father died while he was young, he had polio as a child and walked with a limp his entire life, and he spent the early years of his marriage serving in WWII in Hawaii with the Army Air Corps.  After the war he came back to Charlotte and built his own business. Through it all, he never stopped believing in tomorrow.

Both my father, Kirk Neely, and my father-in-law, Ray Suddreth, taught me much about life and how important it is to savor all of it and enjoy the simple things, like a thick juicy tomato sandwich on a hot summer afternoon.  “Life is too short to get upset about the little things,” my Dad would say. I thank God for these two men in my life who demonstrated daily to me the love of the Heavenly Father. 

May God bless your Father’s Day this year,      

Bill

“You Need Them”

I never sent my mother flowers for Mother’s Day. She sent them to me. Every year for the second Sunday in May she sent to her eight children and their spouses red corsages with notes that said, “I’m glad I’m your Mama” or “I’m glad I’m your Mother-in-Love.” She called herself that instead of a mother-in-law.

Memaw, as we called her, was the matriarch of the Neely family. She ran the show, and nobody complained. Why would they? It was a great show. We were a large and crazy mixed-up family with varying political, social and religious views. But when we got together, none of those differences mattered. Memaw taught us to be a family. Robert Frost once wrote that “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” Memaw made home a place where we wanted to go, and she taught us how to take each other in.

In her book, Families, Jane Howard wrote, “Call it a clan, call it a network, call it a tribe, call it a family. Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one.” This month whatever your family looks like, whatever you call them, no matter how much you differ, take time to celebrate each other. You need them.

The other day a church member was in the hospital. When I walked into the room, the individual said, “I told them only family is allowed to visit me.” I responded, “I am family, I am your pastor and that makes me part of the family.” Church is family, a place where we go and they have to take us in. I know that not all mothers are like mine, open and welcoming to all who cross their threshold. Yet that is who Christ has called the church to be, a place we can go that is welcoming and will not judge us.

I have seen signs on churches that read, “All Are Welcome.” But I often wonder if there needs to be some clarification, such as “Except . . .” or “Well, Almost Everyone.” What I would really like to see is, “Yes Everyone, Including You.” May God give us the grace to see everyone as a part of the family of God, everyone as our  brothers and sisters. After all, it is what Mama, or Memaw, expects of us, and what God expects as well. Have a blessed Mother’s Day.

Bill

Sister Jean

I have enjoyed watching the NCAA basketball tournament. It is fun to watch fans as they cheer for their teams. Loyola Chicago has been this year’s Cinderella team. Their most ardent fan is Sister Jean, the team’s 98-year-old chaplain. Though Sister Jean is “retired,”and she recently broke her hip bringing in groceries, she is right there with “her boys,” cheering them on and praying for them. Her presence and support have made a great impact upon the team’s performances, the players say. They are a Cinderella team, or a miracle, according to Sister Jean. After all, how do you explain an 11th seed making it to the elite eight?

In the Presbyterian Church USA’s Book of Confessions, the Brief Statement of Faith begins and ends with the statement, “In life and in death, we belong to God.” This simple assurance has been a tenet of reformed faith since Calvin wrote The Church Institutes. It is important to remind ourselves of this truth in light of the reality that just this week, a number of our friends and colleagues have experienced deaths of a loved ones.

I am reminded of the words of a church member, Totsie Sifford. Totsie called me one day and said, “Bill you need to come see me.” So I went to see Totsie, who had already passed her 80th birthday. She shared with me that she had just received a diagnosis of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). ALS is a devastating progressive

neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. Totsie said, “You know Bill, I always knew I was going to die but I did not think it would be from something like this.” That is a reality for each of us. While we know we will die, we never expect it, and because of our lack of being able to grasp that reality, we are shocked when it comes.

Years ago one of my professors at Gardner-Webb, Dr. Lewis, said to me, “Bill, a person’s life is as long as it takes for that person to go from birth to death. For some, that may be 10 years, for others 30, 40 or 50, and for a few, 80, 90 or 100. However long our life is, it is not measured in the number of our days but in what we contribute and the joy we bring to those around us.” While the death of anyone is a tragedy, there is a larger reality that each of our lives has value and meaning, and we sometimes without even realizing it, have a great impact on others.
In the Heidelberg Catechism, the first question is, “What is our only comfort in life and in death?” The answer given, “That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from all of the power of the devil. He also preserves me in such a way that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; indeed all things must work together for my salvation. Therefore, by his Holy Spirit, he also assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for him.”

May God continue to bless Sister Jean, and help us all believe that we belong wholeheartedly to God.

Bill Neely

Christmas Grief

While going through my books, I came across a little book by Harold Ivan Smith, A December Grief: Living with Loss While Others are Celebrating. In his introduction, Smith tells the story of a king who had a magnificent diamond except for one thing, in the very crown it had a long scratch. Because the king was used to perfection, he offered great riches to anyone in his kingdom who could remove the scratch. But diamonds are hard, the gash was deep and none of the kingdom’s jewelers could remove it.

Then one day a young man showed up who believed he could repair the diamond. Every day the man came to the palace to work on the diamond. Every day the king would ask, “Is it repaired?” and the young jeweler would reply, “Not yet.” After a long time, the man presented the diamond back to the king. The king looked at it and said, “Yes, this is perfect.” The young man had used the deep gash as the stem of a beautiful rose that he had etched into the diamond. Our grief never subsides, there is always a deep gash in our hearts, but God, like that jeweler, is able to transform the deep hurt into something of beauty.

Our family is acquainted with December grief. In 2000 just after celebrating my father’s 80th birthday with our annual family Thanksgiving gathering, my nephew Erik, 27, died from an epileptic seizure. His funeral marked the third time we stood at the graveside of a niece or a nephew before Christmas. Our niece Katherine died 35 years ago on December 12. A few years after Katherine’s death, we stood at the grave of David Kreswell, who had lived twelve years beyond the still birth of his twin brother William. Each of these deaths brought an empty place at the table of our family gatherings.

It will be 16 years this year that we have celebrated Christmas without my mother. She died four months after Erik died. My mother loved Christmas. She started shortly after Halloween preparing the house for Christmas and hosting 10-15 parties with hundreds of people attending. The emptiness from her absence is felt very deeply, especially in December.

This December would have been the 40th anniversary of my sister Kitty and her husband Bruce. The Christmas before Bruce died in January, Wanda and I sat at the table with Bruce and Kitty and prayed that God would give them the best Christmas ever. God granted that prayer.

I know from personal experience what it means to go through the holidays without someone you love. But I also know that our God is a transformative God who can take the deepest pain, the most irremovable gash in our lives, and teach us to be joyful again and bring the hope of the incarnation of Christ into our world, our lives and our pain. May God carry us with joy through whatever December grief we may be experiencing.

Bill Neely

Five Spiritual Disciplines

I’ve always believed that there are at least five disciplines necessary if a person is to live a spiritual life after the example of Jesus. The first of these is corporate worship. While some believe that they can worship God anywhere, Jesus demonstrated by his regular attendance at synagogue that joining with others of like faith was necessary for deepening one’s relationship with God. Worship is our way of joining with others to give praise and adoration for all that God has done for us in Christ.

Second is the study of scripture. Unless we delve deeply into God’s Word as revealed in both the New Testament and Old Testament, we cannot fully comprehend all that God has to say to us. The study of scripture needs to be both private and in community with others if we are to fully understand who we are being called to be and what we are being called to do as Christ’s disciples.

The third spiritual discipline is prayer. There are of course many forms of prayer but joining with others helps us focus our prayers on particular needs and issues, but it’s also important that we spend time in our own quiet meditation contemplating our relationship with God. In prayer we go to the very throne of grace asking God for all that our hearts desire and seeking not simply our will but the will of the one who created us. Without prayer, we become hollow and our spirituality becomes simply a mist.

Fourth is our need to serve others. Service is our way of showing God how grateful we are for what we have been given by others. Service can take many forms. In the church, it can be teaching Sunday School or helping with Vacation Bible School, creating a bulletin board, cooking a meal, and serving as an elder. Service is also serving those outside the church who need our help to make it along life’s journey. This can be done by helping build a Habitat house or serving a meal at the homeless shelter or giving food to the Food Bank or going on a mission trip and many other ways. Through service to others, we gain a deeper appreciation of our connectedness to one another and thereby deepen our own spiritual wellbeing.

The fifth discipline is that of giving. There is a reason that Jesus reminded us that it is more blessed to give than to receive. Giving moves us from selfishness to gratitude. It is through our giving that we learn just how much has been given to us through the sacrifice that Christ made on the cross. Giving moves us to a deeper level of graceful living and without it, we become stale and stagnant.

My prayer is that each of us will commit ourselves to these five disciplines, worship, study, prayer, service, and giving so that we might be the disciples of Christ we are being called to be. May God make us truly God’s people as we live out our lives in the world.

PDA-NRT

By OverlordQ – Created y OverlordQ using WikiProject Tropical cyclones/Tracks. The background image is from NASA. Tracking data is from NHC., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6208509

In early September Hurricane Harvey hit Texas, which at the time was the most powerful and destructive hurricane to hit the United States in recorded history. After Harvey came Hurricane Irma, bringing its destructive force to the western coast of Florida and traveling up the state of Florida into Georgia and Tennessee. Of course all of these hurricanes had devastated the Caribbean islands, leaving death and destruction in their wake. After Irma, Hurricane Lee devastated the coast of Mexico and Hurricane Jose traveled up the east coast, though not as destructive, leaving beach erosion and flooding in its wake. And now our eyes are focused are still on Hurricane Maria, which crossed the island of Española and after doing destruction to the Dominican Republic and Haiti and completely destroying Puerto Rico and now hitting the coast of North Carolina.

I  spent the week of September 14-21 traveling from Sarasota, Florida to Key West, meeting with our Presbyterian brothers and sisters to hear their stories, to share our concerns, and to assure them that we will help them rebuild. Everywhere I have traveled, I have sung your praises, because not every pastor has a congregation who would allow them to do this work. Yet for the 14 plus years I have pastored this congregation, you have not only allowed me but encouraged me in my work with Presbyterian Disaster Assistance.

I’ve also shared the story of visiting with Madge Chamness the Saturday before I was to leave and sharing with them her response when I told her that I’d been asked to go to Florida with the PDA National Response Team. I said, “Madge, I may not be with you when you die.” Her response was a typical Madge response, “Bill, you go to Florida, they need you worse than I do.” On Tuesday morning, September 12, 2017, when her daughter Susan called me and said, “Bill, mama died,” my initial response was, “I need to get out of my trip to Florida.” And Susan said, “No Bill, mama was very specific. You go to Florida and we’ll have the funeral when you get back.”
Madge is not atypical of the folks at First Presbyterian Church; you all have a heart for serving Christ and doing what is right.

I shared with you on Sunday September 24, the work that’s being done in Florida to aid the recovery and how great the needs are around our globe for Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA) to be actively involved in helping with these recoveries. Both the international arm and the domestic arm of PDA are actively involved in helping with the recovery.

I also shared with you that while I was deployed in Florida, I was asked if we could find cleanup buckets for our brothers and sisters at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Key West, Florida. The team with which I was deployed made a trip to Home Depot and purchased all of the needed items to fill 25 buckets and transport them to Key West. I also shared that just before leaving for Florida, I had emptied the account for PDA because we had been collecting money for cleanup buckets in Texas. Along with the cleanup buckets, I picked up lunch for about 30 people, members and friends of the Trinity Presbyterian Church, to be shared together with our team and those who traveled with us. The word spread quickly that there was food at the Presbyterian Church, so we had no surplus and the buckets were going out the door. I want to thank you for being the congregation you are, for your generous and loving spirit, and the fact that though I knew there was no money in the account at the time for disaster relief, I could count on you to replenish the account before the credit card bill arrived at the church.

Once again, you have exceeded my expectations, though I’m not surprised because from the time I first arrived at First Greenville, you have demonstrated your Christ-like concern and compassion for others. As of this writing, this congregation has given an additional $7000+ since Sunday morning for disaster relief.
Be assured that we do not hold on to this money but send it out quickly so that people’s lives can be put back in order. I count myself to be extremely blessed to be called your pastor. It is easy to pastor a people who have so much love and concern for others. Please pray for the people of Texas, Florida, Porto Rica, the Caribbean, and Mexico.

Thank you for allowing me to do this work and allowing me to be your pastor.  May God continue to bless our work as we move forward, relying on the strength of the Holy Spirit to guide us.

Bill

History, Civil Rights, White Privilege

Back in the late 90s and early 2000s, while I was pastoring in Clover, SC, there was a debate over whether or not the confederate flag should be removed from the dome of the South Carolina State House.  A colleague and friend of mine, the Rev. Charles White, who had also grown up in South Carolina, asked me and members of my congregation to join him and members of his congregation in a march led by Joe Riley, the mayor of Charleston to have the confederate flag removed. The Clover City Council went on record as favoring the removal of the flag.  While a number of us joined in the march, it would be more than another decade before the governor, Nikki Haley, ordered it removed permanently from the grounds of the State House.

As a result of our efforts, we drew the attention of the Ku Klux Klan and they applied for and were given a permit to march through the streets of Clover. Believing in the first amendment, the mayor of Clover, one of my members, said to deny them the right to march would be to deny free speech for all of us. So along with several other ministers, Charles and I met to discuss what an appropriate response would be to the impending march. Our conclusion was that our best response was to give no credibility to a group of people who neither understood history nor recognized the errors in their thinking about the history of the flag, civil rights, or white privilege.

On the afternoon of the march, the churches loaded their vans with young people and took them to the movies and we encouraged our church members to gather in small groups away from downtown and pray for healing in our community and our nation. I sat with a group of Methodists at the parsonage in which Charles lived and we waited and prayed until the march was over.

While I honor those who stand in opposition to racism, and I grieve those who want to cling to the past rather than work for the future, I also wonder what would happen if there was a hate parade and no one showed up. My prayer is that one day we will truly understand what it means to confess that all of us are created equal and that we are all precious in the sight of God and that God loves all the children of the world, red and yellow, black and white, Hindu, Jew, Muslim, and Christian and all others.

Bill Neely

Just a hodge podge of thoughts!