I remember a challenging time for Blair and me during our first year of marriage. My dad was very sick that year with ferocious cancer. He had tried three different chemo treatments. None of them worked. He made an appointment at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. He arrived in October for tests. October rolled into November. The doctors decided he needed radical surgery.
They scheduled it for the week of Thanksgiving. I was torn because my favorite holiday in our family had always been Thanksgiving. My extended family, over thirty of us, would gather at my grandparents’ home on St. Simons Island off the coast of Georgia. I sure didn’t want to miss it, but I also didn’t want my parents to be alone in Rochester.
So Blair and I decided to forego our family celebration and instead to fly out to Rochester. As a southern boy all my life, Rochester was colder than any place I had ever been and I didn’t have heavy enough coats to stay warm. I remember registering in the hospital and walking those long hallways to find my dad’s room. As I knocked on the cracked door, I was torn to pieces when I saw him. He had tubes coming out all over his body. He hardly had any hair left. Medical machines were beeping. Even though my mother and father had encouraged us to spend Thanksgiving in St. Simons, I could tell they were both happy to see us.
After catching up for an hour or so I gave my mother the night off from sleeping in a foldout chair. She slept in our hotel room with Blair. I stayed with my dad. I fed him ice-chips. I called the nurse when his colostomy bag was full. I shared with him about our wonderful first year of marriage.
The next morning, I woke to find my mother sipping coffee and reading the local paper.
“Oh, yes, Will, I keep up with the local news. The high school football team is in the playoffs.” And then she said, “I read too where the United Methodist churches in the area are getting together for a Thanksgiving service on Tuesday. Can we go? I need to go to church.”
I said, “How will we get there? It’s 20 miles away.”
She said, “Call the church and see if they can recommend a good taxi service.” (These were the days before Uber).
I said, “Mama, I’m not calling the church about a taxi.”
My mom gave me one of those looks. I called the church. This dear church secretary organized two church members to pick us all up. I really wasn’t sure how I felt about worshiping. My heart was sick. I felt slightly like those exiles in Babylon who cried out, “How could we sing the songs of Zion in a foreign land?”My dad stayed behind in the hospital. Blair, Mama and I waited at the hotel entrance. Sure enough, a black Oldsmobile rolled up at 6 o’clock sharp and parked. An older gentleman in a leather coat and wool cap got out and said, “I’m Harold Butterball and this is my wife Vicky. You must be the Zants.”
Did you catch their last name? Butterball…like the turkey company. Surely God was working. This wonderful couple drove us 20 miles to their church. The greeters welcomed us up the steps and took our coats. The ushers seated us. The pastor shook our hands. In that warm and full sanctuary, we sang the Thanksgiving hymns with strangers who did not feel so strange at all in that place. “Now thank we all our God with heart and hands and voices.” The pastor delivered a simple message about our need to thank God in the good and the hard times. We prayed together and said the Apostles’ Creed. After the service, the church hosted the congregation for coffee and desserts. And then we grabbed our coats and headed for the car. The Butterballs dropped us off at the hotel.
Vicky said to us, “I know it must be hard to be away from your family this Thursday, but we will be praying for you.”
The surgery was successful on Wednesday, but there were still many questions unanswered. Thanksgiving arrived the next day. While our family in Georgia devoured sweet potato souffle and cornbread dressing, Blair, mama and I ate boiled shrimp and vegetable medley in a hotel ballroom in Rochester, Minnesota. Take it from me. Do not try the shrimp in Minnesota.
That whole week felt like we were living in a foreign land, except for Tuesday night. Tuesday night felt different.
As difficult as that time in my life was, I’ll never forget the power of the Body of Christ and a couple named the Butterballs. God was indeed with us. I thought about the Apostle Paul’s words from I Corinthians 12:27, “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.” Because even though in Rochester we were thousands of miles away from our family in Georgia, that night among our Christian brothers and sisters gathered for worship, we were home.
One thought on “Singing the Lord’s songs in a foreign land”
I am sitting here crying after reading your blog. Knowing you, Blair, Claire and your entire family this was so meaningful. What you shared is so true and starts my day refocused on what is really important in life.
Thank you and much love!