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

 

Dr. Martin Luther King 2017

My spouse, Wanda, called our children this past Sunday evening to let them know that I had received an honor at the Martin Luther King service. My granddaughter called me back with questions about why in the world I would get an honor from people working for civil rights when I was white and had grown up in a family that had always had black people working for us. I told my granddaughter that she was exactly right; I did not deserve to be honored in this way, and that though at times in my life I have spoken up for social, economic, and racial justice for all people, there were other times when I had kept my mouth shut even though I knew I should speak up.  At the service honoring Dr. Martin Luther King on Sunday afternoon, I read passages from his letter that he wrote from the Birmingham jail in April 1963. One of the things I said about that letter is that every time I read it, it judges me. For you see that letter was written to the white clergy of Birmingham, and in his eloquent and gentle manner, he reminded those clergy that if wrongs were to be righted and if injustices were to be corrected, those who carry the mantle of morality must speak up. Then racial, economic, and educational civil rights would come to not only Birmingham, but to our nation and world.   All of us have a tinge of cowardice in us that allows us to keep silent in the face of wrongful speech and ideas. It is only by the grace and power of God that any of us are able to speak words that bring justice, healing, and hope to those who are disenfranchised and oppressed. May God give us each that kind of courage. I regret that in my life I have not always been as courageous or as outspoken as I should have been. I know that for some who have been within earshot of my teaching, preaching, and counsel, they still hold deep-seated prejudice. My prayer for myself and for all of you is that God will root out from us wrongful ideas and bad speech. May God bless us.

Christmas Hope

kinston-tree-at-night kinston-tree-in-the-day

My spouse, the Rev. Dr. Wanda Neely, who is pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Kinston, NC, helped her congregation sandbag the city and county as the waters were rising on the Neuse River after Hurricane Matthew. FPC Kinston, along with other churches in New Hope Presbytery, continue to aid in the recovery from this hurricane. Along with everything else that must be accomplished during the month of December, Wanda got a call asking if her congregation would participate in putting up a Christmas tree along the greenway in Kinston for the “Twilight Tinsel Trail.”

Being a creative and imaginative congregation, the folks at First Kinston decided to use the sandbags that had been used to hold back the chaotic waters of the rising Neuse as a demonstration of the hope that has come into the world through Jesus Christ. In the photos at the top of the page, you can see the evidence of their creativity. The pictures show a Christmas tree built from muddy sandbags and decorated with lights and crosses. Years ago the Presbyterian Church (USA) developed the slogan, “Out of chaos, hope.” I can think of no better symbol of this than the tree that sits along the greenway in Kinston.

God is always at work in our tattered and torn lives to bring healing, mending, and hope. During this season, my prayer for each of us is that whatever chaos dwells within, around, or amongst us, we will feel the presence of “God with us, Immanuel.”  The Gospel writer of John reminds us that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it. May God bless us with this assurance this Christmas.

                                                                                                Bill Neely

Another Hurricane

north-carolina

On September 21, 1989, Hurricane Hugo made landfall in Charleston, South Carolina. At that time, I was pastoring the Yeamans Park Presbyterian Church in Hanahan, SC. The small community of Hanahan had contingent borders with North Charleston and Goose Creek and our community was hit hard. The congregation at Yeamans Park stepped up and became the center for recovery in our community. In 2003, when I interviewed with the Search Committee at First Presbyterian Church, Greenville, one of the things that was apparent was how proud the members of that committee were of their congregation’s response to Hurricane Floyd. Shortly after arriving, Hurricane Inez hit the coast of eastern North Carolina and though Greenville itself was spared in the main, the outlying regions were greatly affected. I received a call on a Sunday morning that the Food Bank in Elizabeth City was out of supplies and I announced from the pulpit that we would be taking supplies to them that afternoon if folks could have them at the church by 2:00 p.m. I walked into the church to help load several vehicles to head east and was amazed at the response. I said to Connie Bond, “Wow, I can’t believe all this stuff,” and Connie’s response was, “Yeah, Bill, this is what we do. This is who we are as a church.” Dick and Lynne Marks and Wanda and some others loaded up their vehicles and headed east that afternoon. After about a six-hour trip, Wanda came back laughing at their adventure and all that they had been through, the detours and flat tires, but they had made it. Several Saturdays after that, crews from FPC went out to muck out houses and begin the process of reconstruction.  Over the past 13 plus years, I have been amazed at this congregation’s generosity and energy at responding to disaster. Having gathered more than 60 ministers in our Fellowship Hall Monday afternoon, we began the process of helping Pitt County and the surrounding region recover again. I know that you will all step forward again and help us with this recovery. I don’t know what all it will entail, but I know we are receiving the following list of supplies, (water, blankets, special items for babies and the elderly, flashlights, telephones, toys, books, games, non-perishable food, non electric can openers, hygiene items/wipes/toiletries) and our youth are gathering today to put together kits for the emergency shelters. If you have toiletry items, toothbrushes, small toothpaste, soap, shampoo, mouthwash, etc. from hotels, they could use those. We will continue to assemble health kits as long as folks are in the shelters. Thank you for being the congregation you are. May God bless us as we continue to serve others.
Bill Neely

School Days


 “School days, school days       

Dear old Golden Rule days     

  'Reading and 'riting and 'rithmetic     

  Taught to the tune of the hick'ry stick” 

The reality is that there is a lot more to school these days than simply learning to write and to read and to do arithmetic.  And the use of a hickory stick is no longer allowed for encouraging students to learn. While education changes and the methods and subject matter are different, our need for learning never goes out of style. I had a church member one time who, in a Sunday School class, made the statement, “The Bible said it, I believed it, and that settled it.” The problem with statements like that is that it assumes that what I know and believe is right and that all others’ beliefs and knowledge should be measured by mine.

As our young people and college students return to the classrooms in the coming weeks, let us remember that what we learned 10, 20, 40, 50, or 60 years ago is not the same as what they will be challenged to master. Our understanding of the world and the universe increases exponentially as new discoveries are made and new understandings are gleaned. As teachers, administrators, parents, and grandparents strive to help our young people become all that God created them to be, let’s remember that the best learning that we can teach them is to believe in themselves, to question everything, and to examine what others say with a critical eye because real learning comes not from memorizing but from exploring.

What is true for the textbook is true for the scriptures. The apostle Paul challenged his congregants to “test every spirit to see if they were from God.” If we are to mature as Christians in a complex and changing world, we must continually examine the scriptures, deepen our understanding of what others believe and then and only then, can we with confidence declare what we believe. May God bless this school year, our public schools, our universities, our private institutions, and our Sunday Schools.

                                                                                            Bill Neely

“Grandparent Camp”

I recently completed two weeks of “grandparent camp” with my two grandchildren. This year, my grandchildren, Ellen, 13, and Nathan, 8, visited the two weeks during the Republican and Democratic conventions. It became apparent to me as I tried to watch the speeches, my grandchildren were becoming more and more upset. I was reminded that the way we speak and talk about others has a great deal of influence on the children who are watching us. So I sat down one night to try to reassure them.

One of the things that I have learned over the years about political discussions is that it is very hard for any of us to be completely rational and to stick to the facts. This is clear if you fact-check any speech given in any debate or convention. Like most of us, politicians tell their story in a way that will embellish their qualities and vilify their opponents. The problem is, children have a very difficult time distinguishing between embellishment and truth. Like all of us, I sometimes have the same problem. Here are a few things that I shared with my grandchildren to try to help them.

First, no presidential candidate is able to accomplish anything without the concurrence of both the legislative and judicial branches of government. That’s why the framers of the Constitution built a system of checks and balances. 

Second, in my lifetime, there have been twelve presidents. Some were considered great presidents when they were elected and while they served, others were considered terrible presidents when they were elected and while they served, but history has a way of interpreting presidencies in the long term. Yet whether I thought they were good or bad, the nation has continued to both thrive and grow through some very scary times, through times of war, and through hard economic times. Because of all we have been through, I have a great deal of faith in our American system, and our resiliency as a people.

Third, whatever happens, God is still in control. The world, while sometimes a scary place, is also a place where hope abounds. So whoever becomes president, we will find a way to live our lives with hope and assurance that humans are never in control completely. Please join me in praying for this election cycle and if you’re able, please vote.                

Bill Neely

Helping Nurture the Call

Allen and Howard

One of the privileges I have experienced over the years as a pastor has been watching young people answer a call to ministry. I have been privileged to be a part of the discerning process for dozens of young ministers. Each one of these ministers comes with unique gifts and abilities, but all are called to nurture and grow the church of Jesus Christ in the world.

There are those who would pronounce the last rites over the Christian church, believing that it is headed in the same direction of other institutions. Instead I see a new energy in our churches, with men and women accepting the challenge to proclaim the saving grace of God in new ways in an ever-changing world.  The arise of social media has given the opportunity for me to reconnect and watch with amazement at the creative and imaginative work that’s going on in the church.

Just recently I was at Montreat and ran in to two former students, Howard Dudley and Allen Amos. This congregation nurtured both of these men through their college years here at East Carolina University. Howard served both as an intern for youth ministry and an intern for Campus Ministry.  He has recently accepted the call to become the pastor at First Presbyterian Church, Dunn, North Carolina. While we cannot as a congregation take full credit for his maturation into a fine outstanding young pastor, we can rejoice that, along with his home church in Wake Forest, NC, the church of his parents in Tarboro, NC, and Union Presbyterian Seminary, we had some influence in him becoming who God is calling him to be. I know that FPC Dunn will continue to nurture his call and that Howard will serve them well.

Allen served as an intern in our music program as a scholar singer, a substitute musician, and director of our youth choirs. Allen recently accepted a position at the Durham School of the Arts and is serving the New Hope Presbyterian Church in Chapel Hill as their music director. Allen’s pastor is the Rev. Kerri Hefner, who also served this congregation as Associate Pastor for Campus Ministry and Mission. Both Howard and Allen are leading the music at the Montreat Youth conferences this summer.

May God continue to provide us as a congregation the opportunity to nurture and encourage the future leaders of our churches. Please continue to pray for our search committee for our new Associate Pastor.

Bill Neely

The Long Hot Summer

Artist Gilmore

In the summer of 1965, I found myself once again in summer school in an attempt to make up classes I had failed to pass during the regular school year. This had been a regular occurrence for me since the ninth grade. In those days, school buildings were not air conditioned and going to summer school meant long hours of sitting through materials that should have been learned in the cooler days of the regular school year. The summer of ‘65 was a summer of unrest. It was determined that beginning in the fall, Spartanburg High School would admit its first African-American student. Spartanburg South Carolina was an uncomfortable place to be, and the conversations around our supper table were not always Christian or welcoming to the coming changes in our societal norms.

In the summer of 1966, having made it out of high school as my father described, “by the skin of my teeth,” I registered for both semesters of summer school at what would become Gardner-Webb University.  But at the time it was Gardner-Webb Junior College. That summer was also a summer of unrest and change.  Near the end of the second semester of summer school, I was asked to come to the president’s office for a meeting. You can imagine that for a freshman college student being asked to come to the president’s office was both intimidating and a curiosity. When I entered the office, there was the president, the vice president, the dean of students, the athletic director, and the basketball coach. Then I really wondered what in the world is going on, what did I do? The first question I was asked was “Are you willing to change roommates?” My response was “Sure.” Then I was told, “Well the guy is 7’2”.” My response was, “Well he will not be able to wear my clothes like my present roommate does.” And then I was informed, “He is black.” And my response was, “So? That’s not a problem.” You see I wanted to believe that I was not a racist, that I could be open and accepting. But over the next months, I learned just how insidious racism can be.

The summer of 1967 is known as “the long hot summer.” There were more race riots and more unrest, as blacks in this nation demanded equality and justice. The events of the last two weeks have reminded me of those days and just how much racism is still a part of the fiber of who we are as a nation. I dreamed that my generation would be the one finally to be done with judging others on the way they looked, or their national origin, or the color of their skin, or the way they spoke. I am  disappointed both in myself and in our inability to move forward, but I still pray for the day when all God’s children, red and yellow, black and white, will be precious not only in the sight of the God who made them, but in the sight of all of us. May God speed that day.

                                                                                                   Bill Neely

Speak The Truth In Love

When I was in school in Spartanburg, South Carolina, one of the required courses was South Carolina history. I made the mistake one day of referring to the War Between the States as the Civil War. My teacher was quick to correct me. “It was not a civil war,” she said. “It was a war between the states, and we were only defending our rights. It was the aggression of the North that caused it.” Later in pastoring one church, I referred to that same war as the War of Northern Aggression, of course with tongue in cheek. Needless to say, I upset many of my members who had been taught a different history of that war. Over the years, though I don’t always practice it, I have learned that our language makes a difference. I grew up going to school during the late 50’s and mid-60’s and there were many terms that I used and that were used by those I trusted that I would not dare to use today.

During my second year in college (I wish I could refer to it as my sophomore year), I attended a mission conference at Southeastern Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina. Baptist students from all over the state of NC had been invited to come together. The theme that year was Racial Justice. The keynote speaker was Clarence Jordan, founder of Koinonia Farms. During the conference, a group of Shaw University students put Dr. Jordan on trial for being a racist. Many of us who held him up as a model in the white community for racial justice were offended. In a conversation after that event with some Shaw University students, I let slip the “n-word” and then tried to correct it by using the word “colored”. I simply dug myself further in a hole. Thinking back on that, I have learned that our language really does matter. It’s the reason that our Jewish brothers and sisters will not pronounce the Hebrew name for God.

Recently there has been increasing clamor over what language should be used, what names we should call various groups, and how we should speak to one another. I continue to be amazed at both my own insensitivity and that of those I love, when we use words that demean, degrade, and subjugate others, while trying to convince ourselves that our language doesn’t matter. Paul in his admonition to the church in Ephesus reminds them to speak the truth in love, but oftentimes we are absolutely capable of speaking truth void any love at all. May God teach us to follow Jesus’s greatest commandment that we love one another just as Christ has loved us.

Bill Neely

Just a hodge podge of thoughts!