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.

Shavuot/Pentecost

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

American-Military-Cemetery

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

Timeout

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

Shrove Tuesday

Golden Pancakes
Golden Pancakes

As I write this, it is Shrove Tuesday or sometimes known as Fat Tuesday. It comes from an old European tradition of removing all of the fat from one’s house before Lent begins. So folks would get together and eat up all of the butter, eggs, milk, and meat in their homes that would spoil over the next forty days.

Lent was a time for fasting, a time for giving up something; however, I’ve always believed that Lent should be a time of taking something on. For me the Lenten discipline consists of finding some activity or endeavor that draws me closer to God and to Jesus Christ. Lent should be a time for us to focus our attention on what the cross means and why it is so significant for our faith.

Recently I was in conversation with a Jewish rabbi who asked me that very question, why is it that the cross is so important to you Christians? I responded the way I always love to, with a question, “Why is it that the exodus and the Torah are so important to you Jews?” Of course he responded by saying, “Well, those are the things that formed us into a group and a nation, and remind us of just how much God loves us.” And I responded, “And for us, all of that happens at the cross.” You see for Christians the cross symbolizes God cutting in to human history and claiming us as God’s own.

We all look for signs of God’s grace and the assurance that we are loved by God. I can think of no better way for us as Christians than to realize that through the death and suffering and resurrection of Jesus, God’s own Son, we have been claimed as the children of God and made heirs with Christ as brothers and sisters. I informed the rabbi that as Presbyterians we believe that we too are children of the covenant, not by some genetic heritage but through what Christ did for us on the cross.

As we move through this Lenten season, may the astonishing, overwhelming, and awesome grace of God bring you to Easter so that like those early disciples, we may also stand amazed and awestruck.

Valentine’s Day

vilentine card

Valentine’s Day is a holiday that was created for the sole purpose of commerce. It was a way for greeting card companies and confectionists to fill a gap in lagging sales after the Christmas season. And even though it is a contrived holiday, it has become one in which we long for someone to invite us to be their valentine.

During elementary school, it was a tradition for us to put bags decorated with our name and hearts so that others in the class could come and contribute a valentine. Like Charlie Brown, I longed for some redhead, blonde, or brunette to choose me, and I was always careful to make sure that the best valentine went into the bag of the one my heart longed for. In our youth, we spend many days wondering if there will ever be anyone who will love us and be our special valentine. As we grow older, some of us lose sight of what it means to be a valentine.

In Ecclesiastes, the preacher reminds the young man to not forget the wife of your youth, cling to her so that you will have someone to love in your old age. Over the years, I have been amazed at couples in my congregations, some who walked away from loving partners who would have been there for them in their old age, and others, even with the shortest of courtships, have remained faithful and true to their life partners. No relationship comes without hard work, fidelity requires commitment, but the investment of ourselves in another is worth the cost.

I know of no more beautiful scene than watching a husband or a wife tend to their dying spouse. I am convinced that to have a valentine, you have to be a valentine, which means faithfulness and commitment even through life’s challenges. I received a valentine card from my girlfriend the other day. It read, “Between us … distance is no barrier for love.”  I thank God for my valentine and I pray that you too had a happy Valentine’s Day.

 

A Two-Slice Toaster

toster

Several weeks after Wanda moved into the apartment in Morganton, North Carolina, I decided to make a couple pieces of toast, only to realize that our toaster oven now resided in an apartment in downtown Morganton. So I went retro, fired up the oven, pulled out a cookie sheet, and made my toast.

Later that week while in a Wal-Mart, I was surprised to learn that two-slice toasters could be purchased for $7, cheap enough I thought. So I headed home with my new toaster. Back in 1970 when Wanda and I were first married, we were given the first toaster oven I had ever seen. At that time, Black and Decker had a small appliance manufacturing facility in Greenville, SC. My Uncle Wesley and Aunt Jean had realized that they could go by the outlet store and get this newfangled thing called a toaster oven. Not only would it toast bread on both sides, it would also allow you to warm up leftovers or even cook a chicken pot pie. Over the years, toaster ovens have come and gone, but have been a standard piece of equipment in our home. But for me, there’s just simply something nostalgic about the two-slice toaster.

While there was never one in my home growing up, my mother’s mother, my Grannie, had one that sat on her kitchen table. I’m sure it was a gift from one of her children as a convenience because she lived alone and after all, two toasted slices of bread are just right for any southern breakfast.

During my eighth grade year, I would walk from Evans Junior High School to my grandmother’s house after school to wait for my mom to pick me up. Grannie would always fix me two pieces of bread, toasted, buttered, and served with pear preserves. Both Grannie and I loved pear preserves. I will never forget the conversations we had at that kitchen table. During my ninth grade year, I continued my daily walks down to Grannies. During this time, I sat alone because Grannie’s health was failing. But I would go by and check on her and wait until my mother could pick me up. I would often sit by her bed and talk to her, if for no other reason than to give her caregiver, Mrs. Blanton, a break. And then on May 9, 1963, I went to the house and sat with my Grannie while she passed from this life to the next. It was my sister Jeslyn’s 11th birthday.

That afternoon, my time around table, eating toast from a two-slice toaster, ended. Until a few days ago. As I took the toast from that two-slice toaster, my memory rushed back to those beautiful days with my Grannie. I don’t know that there is anything more precious in the world than for an eighth grader to have a grandmother to talk them through those trying days. I thank God for all of the Grannies in the world and especially for my grandmothers.
Bill Neely

 

Just a hodge podge of thoughts!