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.


By OverlordQ – Created y OverlordQ using WikiProject Tropical cyclones/Tracks. The background image is from NASA. Tracking data is from NHC., Public Domain,

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.


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

Sneaky Snake

To quote the country artist singer, Tom T. Hall, “I don’t like old sneaky snake.” I have noticed from Facebook posts and from my own experience, it has become fairly common this summer to run into a snake. One would think that a snake would have enough sense to stay out of the city, off the roads, and in the woods. Yet in back yards and front yards, driveways and walkways, we keep running into this otherwise elusive creature.

Scripture tells us that snakes don’t have any arms or legs because they were cursed in the biblical account in Genesis when the serpent tempted Eve. For whatever reason, God indeed created this creature in all of its varieties and put a sense of fear in us so that at just the sight of one, we cringe.

In Tom T.’s song, he says, “Boys and girls take warning, if you go near the lake, keep your eyes wide open and look for sneaky snake. Now, maybe you won’t see him, and maybe you won’t hear, but he’ll sneak up behind you and drink all your root beer.” I’ve never seen a snake drink root beer, but I do know that Tom Hall is right, if you go near the lake or even through the tall grass, you need to keep your eyes wide open because while some will turn and go the other way, there are those sneaky snakes that will bite you.

Perhaps unfairly, snakes have become the embodiment of evil and our fears. The reality is that both our fears and evil can sneak up behind us and we will find ourselves bitten before we even realize it. May God protect and keep us, especially from the tempter’s snare and deliver us from evil.  

        Bill Neely

“Fidget Spinner”

For Father’s Day this year, I received from my granddaughter a high grade fidget spinner. Out of curiosity I went online to read articles about this phenomenon.

When I was in junior high school, the rage became the Duncan yo-yo. The company manufacturing them had just come out with a new type of string which allowed an experienced yo-yo artist to perform all kinds of tricks. A few years later, my dad brought home a handful of plastic tubes connected end to end and we spent the summer trying to perfect the art of hula hooping.

And now we have the fidget spinner. More than a toy, it is purported to relieve anxiety and help the distracted child focus. I read several articles arguing that Catherine Hettinger had invented the “fidget spinner.” Back in 1993 and in 1997 she had secured a patent and tried to convince Hasbro Inc. to manufacture it. Having studied her “finger spinner” and the new fidget spinner, they are nothing alike. And so the inventors of the fidget spinner have nothing to worry about. She allowed her patent to lapse in 2005. In 2016, the current fidget spinner was patented and began being manufactured. With increased popularity as teachers began to find it a useful tool for children with Attention Deficit Disorder and hyperactive children, it became the rage in schools across the world.

But I want to take credit of inventing the original fidget spinner back in 1953 because I also was ADHD. I would take my wooden ruler out of my desk and spin it on the point of my #2 pencil, keeping myself occupied and from daydreaming while my teachers tried to impart the wisdom of the ages into my young mind. Thinking I was simply goofing off and not paying attention, my ruler spent more hours in the teacher’s desk than mine.

Over the years, from clicking the top of a ballpoint pen to just simply spinning something on a table, I have continued to fidget, and now I have an authentic six-pointed fidget spinner. But I doubt that it will be appreciated in meetings and counseling sessions. After all, what some find relieves their anxiety creates anxiety in others.

May God help us as we seek to pay attention to ourselves and each other so that we will not spin out of control.


We Christians have entered the season of Pentecost, which began this past Sunday. Pentecost comes on the 50th day after Easter and coincides with the Jewish celebration of Shavuot. Shavuot is a two-day celebration of the giving of the Torah (the Law of God) to the Jewish people on Mount Sinai. It is not that the Jewish people did not already know the requirements contained in the Ten Commandments or even keep them before Moses ascended Mount Sinai. After all, scripture records that Abraham kept the law of God and thereby was found righteous. A period of nearly 750 years passed before Moses received the Ten Commandments on the mountain.  Then the people of Israel continued serving and obeying God, even in their exile in Egypt.
So why have we as Christians placed Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit, at the same time as the Jewish celebration of Shavuot? I believe the answer lies in the Jewish understanding that though the people knew the law, it was veiled to them until Moses met God on the mountain and the law became more than simply rules. It became a way of life, a way of living out God in their lives. The writers of the New Testament and in particular Luke understood that like Moses’ experience at Sinai, the disciples had also experienced the coming of God’s presence into the world.
Just as the law became a living reality in Moses and the people of Israel, we as Christians must experience Christ becoming a living reality in us. The presence of Holy Spirit transforms us just as surely as Torah transformed the people of Israel. The Spirit binds us together and makes us a people, a holy nation, God’s own beloved. May God pour out the Spirit on us as we are transformed as a people and a church to be the presence of God in the world.  For God knows that that Presence is needed now as much as it was when Moses met God on Mount Sinai and those early disciples met the Spirit of the living God in that upper room.

Pray for Peace


As I write this article, yesterday was Memorial Day, a day for remembering our fallen women and men who have served in the armed forces. For me, it was also a day for looking toward a time when war will be no more and when we will no longer send our young people into the field of battle to die because we are either unwilling or uncreative enough to find the way to live together on this globe. For those of us who are Christians, our claim is that we worship the Prince of Peace and yet often, we find ourselves to be those who are most ready for a fight. Back in the fall of 1965 and the spring of 1966, I took Solid Geometry and Trigonometry at Spartanburg High School under Mr. J.P. Holt. The war in Vietnam was heating up, yet it would be another two years before the selective service was reinstated and what became known as the draft took effect. Mr. Holt, who had himself served on the battlefields of France and Germany, was extremely upset that we were finding ourselves in another war. Nearly every day, he would make the statement, “We are just killing off our youngest and brightest and throwing away the cream of the crop.” Sitting in his class and hearing those words, I did not fully comprehend his frustration nor his anger, but looking back over the past fifty years and the number of young people in our world who have been sacrificed because the politicians cannot figure out a better way is indeed disheartening. I think it’s important and I have taken the time to find the names of both high school and college friends engraved on the black stone of the Vietnam Memorial and grieved their loss. Two years ago this summer, I stood in the cemetery amongst the white marble crosses, stars of David, and crescent moons of our fallen soldiers at the American cemetery in Normandy and thought of parishioners and relatives who had come home from that great war. I remembered the words of Bob Jackson who, when speaking to the children at Clover Presbyterian Church, said “the real heroes are lying under those white crosses at Normandy. Those of us who got to come home were not real heroes.” Having known Bob and some of the stories he would tell, being in the first wave to land at Omaha Beach, getting himself through the Battle of the Bulge, and then being a soldier who guarded the prisoners of war during the Nuremberg Trials, he had certainly given his time in defense of his nation. Yet Bob also believed as I do that peace is better than war.  I have a greater appreciation of my old math teacher Mr. Holt and his frustration and his hope that one day we will learn to live together. .
Bill Neely

In Life and in Death, We Belong to God.

In the Presbyterian Church (USA) Book of Confessions, the Brief Statement of Faith begins and ends with the statement, “In life and in death, we belong to God.” That 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 the death of a loved one.

While we all know that one day we will die, I am reminded of the words of a former church member, Totsie Sifford. Totsie called me one day and said, “Bill you need to come see me.” So I went to visit 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 the spinal cord. Totsie made a profound statement, “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 all of us. While we know that we will die, we never expect it, and because of our lack of being able to grasp that reality, we are always 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 or 40 or 50, and for a few, 80, 90 or 100, but 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 your only comfort in life and in death?” And the answer given is, “ That I am not my own, but belong— body and soul, 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 the tyranny of the devil.  He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation.  Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life  and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.” 

May we know that in life and in death we belong wholeheartedly to Christ. 

Bill Neely


Timeout, Standing In A Corner


I did not know about a “timeout chair” until my grandchildren got in kindergarten. One day after my grandson Nathan started kindergarten, I was with him and did something, though I cannot remember what, that upset him. Nathan said, “Granddad, you have to go to the timeout chair.” The timeout chair is an interesting concept and while it is new to me, I can see the value of moving away from others while we deal with our frustrations, anger, or even perhaps potential bad behavior.

I did know, on the other hand, the experience of standing in a corner with your nose to the wall. My first grade teacher, Mrs. Born, helped me perfect the art of standing still in a corner for hours at a time. As a hyperactive attention- deficit dyslexic first grader, I drove her crazy. Of course I did not mean to, but Mrs. Born had been teaching for forty years and she was tired of children “misbehaving,” and I found it difficult to sit through many of the “R’s”.

As I think about Nathan’s suggestion that I sit in the timeout chair, and those hours I spent standing with my nose to the corner, I think about Lent and our need to draw aside and as Mrs. Born would say, “Think about what you have done.” The problem is, like that first grader of years ago, I sometimes have a very difficult time understanding just what I have done and why it upset others. That is the task of Lent, to come face to face with ourselves, the reality of who we are, and lay that at the foot of the cross where Jesus can forgive and transform us into who we are called to be.

Not sure that I will spend any time in the corner with my nose to the wall, but I hope for myself and for you that this Lenten season will be a time of self-examination as we seek to be Christ’s people in the world.


Bill Neely

Just a hodge podge of thoughts!