Monday, November 21, 2005

We Gather Together

“We gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing;
He chastens and hastens His will to make known;
The wicked oppressing now cease from distressing,
Sing praises to His name: He forgets not his own.

Beside us to guide us, our God with us joining,
Ordaining, maintaining His kingdom divine
So from the beginning the fight we are winning;
Thou, Lord, wast at our side, All gory be thine!

We all do extol thee, thou leader triumphant,
And pray that thou still our defender wilt be.
Let thy congregation escape tribulation;
Thy name be ever praised! O Lord, make us free!”

Traditional Dutch Hymn of Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving Day is, thankfully, almost upon us. Just before the holiday recess the U.S. Congress got down right nasty. I didn’t watch any of it, for dignity’s sake, but from all the reports I’ve seen it was a real slobber-knocker. If the accounts are to be believed, the only things missing were the non-verbal brickbats, chains, and zip-guns my generation used to arm itself with back in the old days. The president’s on an international junket, shaking hands with Mongolian soldiers, doing, I think, the same sort of thing Bill Clinton used to do to escape Whitewater and Monica. Washington, despite all the decorations, is not a fun place to be these days.

The good feelings in the wake of the recess will last about thirty days or so. Maybe that’s all we have in us anymore. The mood of the country is nasty, which makes folks like Ellen Goodman, Molly Ivins, Bob Novak, Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, Jon Stewart, and Patrick Kelley absolutely euphoric. By the time the holidays are over and they’re back at it again, they’ll have deposited tidy Christmas bonuses for carving up their enemies, real and perceived, like the turkeys that will be gracing millions of American tables this Thursday.

I guess a brief respite in the midst of the current storms is something to be thankful for. The legislators will be home feasting and falling asleep in their living rooms. The boys and girls from the fourth estate will be writing cheerful sermonettes or tributes to the troops, neither of which will be sincere. But, that’s alright. Thank God for the recess and the holiday truce.

It got cold for a few days here in Emporia, but the chill was short lived. According to the long range forecast it’s going to be close to sixty until the end of the month. Thank God for that, too.

The other day Nancy and I ran into Jim and Judy Kegin at Wal-Mart. Each of them was pushing a shopping cart, one of which contained a pre-lit Christmas tree. Like Nancy and me, they’re in the process of scaling back. Last year they had a nine foot tree, but this year they’ve had to step down to a new model, a seven footer, a wise concession to the lower ceilings in their new home. Nancy mentioned that we had, the day before, gone to Topeka and purchased a seven and a half foot pre-lit job at Hobby Lobby. “Got it for one-third off,” she proclaimed most proudly. “We got some other Christmas stuff at half off, too.” That, a couple of bowls of soup and a few pastries to take home with us from Panera Bread, had made it an exceedingly worthwhile day. On hearing the news, Judy’s eyes lit up. “Is the sale still on?” she asked. “Will be through tomorrow,” Nancy and I answered in unison. A trip to Topeka for Jim and Judy was in order. With that, Jim turned the cart containing the Wal-Mart tree around. As he did he made the rumbling sound of a motor and gripped the cart as if it were a motorcycle. “Rrrrmmmmmmm!” “Rrrrmmmmmmm!” “Rrrrmmmmmmm!” A few seconds later and he was on his way to return the tree to the Christmas section.

Once he was out of earshot I told Judy that Jim seemed quite alive, like I hadn’t seen him for a while. There was clearly a lot of fight left in the old dog. Jim Kegin’s wasn’t going to be relegated to sitting on the front porch, watching the world go by. While I didn’t fully understand the technical details she shared, the practical results of the changes in medication were evident. Jim was once again enjoying life. I learned that he’s now even taking walks up to Wal-Mart to have a cup or two of morning coffee with friends. While he hasn’t started to put his repository of knowledge and wisdom into writing, seeing the good signs gave me hope that all he’s learned won’t be lost. I’m thankful for all that; especially the news that Jim is having fun, being the Jim God created him to be.

There was more good news yesterday. Our worship team did a jazzed up version of “Amazing Grace.” It started out slowly, in the traditional manner, and then it took off. By the time we were half way through it I was back in the fifties. The faces of the team members were still familiar, with Ruth Clock on the keyboards, Janie Horst on the piano, Dan Gray on electric guitar, Dennis Crowell on drums, Elise Flemming on bass, and Jannie Stubbs leading, but the rhythm was definitely fifties. It was as if Danny and the Juniors had gotten religion. Being the traditionalist I am, I spent a moment or two wondering what John Newton might think of this up-tempo version of his classic. Then, Nancy nudged me. “Look,” she whispered. There, at the front of the sanctuary, for everyone to see, was Jim Kegin dancing. The best way I can describe it is to call it the neo-Pentecostal hippity-hop. By the time we got to the words, “When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun,” he was in full swing. His arms pumped up and down in time, left, then right, giving him the look of a soldier marching in review. His legs followed suit, swinging forward in high arcs, left following right, in time with the music. The joy of the moment had suspended, at least for these few wonderful moments, the ravages of Pick’s Disease. I stopped singing and watch, transfixed, as it unfolded. There was cause for celebration. As I wiped the tears from my eyes I sensed that King David, who had once danced for joy over the re-claiming of the ark of the covenant, John Newton, the citizens of heaven, and the Almighty Himself, were all caught up in the joy of the moment. They were pleased.

Earlier in the service I shared something I believed was a prophetic insight for the entire congregation. I do this infrequently, realizing that the notion of someone speaking, or claiming to speak, for God is weighty stuff, and fearing at the same time that what I sense at these times is nothing more than a passing impression that no one really needs to hear. I’ve heard it’s the prophet’s curse. But, I overcame the fear and shared the thought that the same Jesus who had descended to the depths of the earth had also ascended to the right hand of the Father, and that while we, His people, so often call upon Him to descend, He wanted to let us know that He had also ascended and that He was calling us to ascend with Him. We’d been crying “Come down” and He was saying, in response, “Come up!” I thought of that later as I watched Jim dance for joy. The message was clear. God had descended to the depths with Jim and now Jim was ascending to the heights with Him. It was something all of us needed to hear and see.

After church, Nancy and I stopped to get some of the ingredients needed for the stuffing she was going to make for the church supper later in the day. At one point I found myself wandering around looking for just the right bread while Nancy and Bin Na, our exchange student, shopped for celery, onions, and cranberries. As I approached the bread section the sight of Jim dancing came upon me once more. I must have stood in place for three or four minutes, getting misty eyed all over again. I wonderered for a moment what passing customers must have thought of me. “This guy’s getting all sentimental about bread?” “Something terrible must have happened to him.” “Do you think he’s alright, honey?” But, it didn’t matter. If the Spirit could get a hold of Jim and allow him to lose his dignity in front of 300 congregants gathered for morning worship, I could allow the same Spirit to get a hold of me in the bread aisle of the Price Chopper.

When the day was done Nancy and I gathered to feast with a couple of hundred or so of the saints. There, at an adjacent table, breaking bread along with us was Jim Kegin, dancer extraordinaire. A few rows in front of us sat Dusty Crowell, formerly one of Emporia’s most wanted. Jim Schierling, fresh from an angioplasty two days earlier, was also there. The perimeter of the room was filled with fidgety little ones and bored teenagers. Pastor Mike briefly attempted emceeing it all, telling bad Thanksgiving jokes. As soon as Jannie, his wife, gently put the hook around his neck and pulled him offstage, there was an exquisite concert performed by pianist Martin Cuellar. Above and in it all, orchestrating this fellowship of the ungainly, was the Lord of the dance Himself. The pleasure of heaven was in abundance, filling the room. All the while the glow of what I’d witnessed earlier in the day never left. In fact, as the night wore on, it grew warmer and warmer. My heart was filled with thanksgiving.

At a time when nastiness fills the air it’s powerfully refreshing to see redemptive power manifested in the seemingly small events of life – a neo-Pentecostal jig or tears shed in the bread aisle of the grocery store. In a world that is too often filled with grief and terror these days it’s good to see that the power of God to refresh and renew hasn’t been extinguished.

In a few days Nancy and I will be making a trek to Kansas City, to have Thanksgiving with family there. It’s going to be at her cousin’s new home, which will make it very interesting. Judy is the perpetually late one at our family get-togethers. Five years ago, when Nancy and I began hosting the family Thanksgiving, it was a real irritation. After two years of frustration, with the rest of us sitting around waiting for Judy to appear, we learned how to cope with it all. If the feast was to begin at two, we’d all tell Judy it was going to be at noon. That seemed to solve the problem. This year, though, may be a different story. We don’t have a ruse available to us; Judy’s cooking the turkey. I think when it’s all said and done it’ll be vegetables, rolls, cider, cranberries, pumpkin pie at one and turkey at five to cap it all off.

It could be a whole lot worse, though. A late meal is a small price to pay for the privilege of family and fellowship. After all, congress could still be in session. The brickbats could still be flying. The journalists could still be seeking dirt and sniping at any moving target. The nightmare I had a few nights ago could be the real thing. But none of this, thankfully, is true. There’s a greater reality afoot in the world. Joy and grace are constantly springing up through the cracks. The Lord of the dance is still in control. The ancient words are as true today as when they were first recorded: “But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

Happy Thanksgiving!


Anonymous said...

A wonderful exposition of an even more wonderful day. Were the guitars able to be heard from the center section?

Phil Dillon, Prairie Apologist said...


They were indeed. Sorry I forgot to include you among the musicians. I hope the old adage "blessed are them that forgive the forgetful" applies

Doctor Life said...

America's Thanksgiving is not the true thanksgiving. Praise Jesus. Praise the Lord! God Bless.

Bob said...

Thank you Phil. I love your writing. You make me laugh, you make me cry, and a,above all else, youmake me think. God bless you and your family and Happy Thanksgiving from Wichita.