The Whole Nativity Scene
Luke’s Gospel gives us an interesting assortment of Christmas story characters. They range from the Emperor Augustus, the most powerful man in the world to small town shepherds, tying hundreds of thousands of others for the least powerful man in the world. They hail from heaven, a city not of this world to Rome, the most important city in their world to Nazareth, a “don’t blink or you will miss it” community which was hoping to get a Casey’s. There are Jews and Gentiles, rich and the poor, expressives and introverts, men and women, artists and laborers, animals and angels. It is a cacophony of characters with little in common other than they were all stood in need of a savior and got caught in the Christmas photo. We call it the photo the nativity scene and what a scene it was.
When I was a kid, nativity sets were an essential part of the USAmerican Christmas-scape. These sets were mixed and matched and passed down from generation to generation. There were rules of etiquette; you needed a Mary and a Joseph and a baby Jesus but it was not essential that the characters came from the same Nativity Set, be the same size or be made of the same materials. That was good because I don’t remember our sets matching. You had to have an angel on top of the barn, forget that Jesus was almost certainly born in a cave, we had barns in the Midwest and the angel goes on top of it. It was not required but recommended that Mary not be too much bigger than Joseph because that seemed kind of freaky but is was required that Mary had to be way bigger than baby Jesus so he didn’t look like a third grader laying in the manger. You could have an extra Joseph or two (he could always be an additional shepherd or the innkeeper). Extra Mary’s were harder to utilize (it never occurred to us that both shepherds and magi could have been women) so an extra Mary could only be the innkeepers wife or wives if you had two or more extra Mary’s but then you had to make the inn keeper a Mormon. You needed at least three Wise Men, though you could have up to seven; at least four shepherds and not more than two animals for each shepherd. Animals could be anything from livestock on a Midwestern farm to predators on the Serengeti. The bottom line is that a Wildebeest and a cow look about alike from a distance. But there could never, ever, ever be more than one baby Jesus in a nativity set; it would appear that Mary had twins and mess up everything.
You needed rules and a bench because nativity sets were not without tragedies. When I was growing up we moved a lot and if something in the U-Haul got dropped, broken or crushed it was going to be the box with the nativity set. Most of our older nativity characters had broken parts glued on with limited amounts of skill and success. We had a shepherd without the hand that held his staff, a one armed wise man, a donkey with one ear and a three legged camel to name a few. In the “Dismemberment of 77” Jesus’ own earthly father Joseph was summarily decapitated when he tumbled from a table after being struck by an errant rubber tipped projectile fired from a dart gun. While I was in seminary, Bible scholars argued that Joseph died when Jesus was young; my stomach tensed up and to this day I pray I played no role in this.
These days when I see a nativity set, I am surprised how much the mixed up, glued up and beat up characters look like…us. We too have been moved, dropped, broken, glued together, cracked and dismembered. But here we sit looking up at a star and down at a baby; praying for the Prince of Peace to enter our violent world as the angels say, “Fear Not!” Fear not. Last Friday the news broke of yet another school shooting, this time in New Town, Connecticut and this time involving children, not teens. It hit us hard, below the belt and drove the breath from our lungs. We hungered for more information, wondered who was watching the world and questioned things left too long unquestioned. We could not wait to hug our children and grandchildren and we prayed extra hard for those who had forever been robbed of theirs by senseless violence. I opened last week’s services with my familiar, “God is Good!” but we all know that saying that is easier on some days than others. Let me tell you where “God is Good” came from and the story of my re-conversion.
(Sumner, Illinois, circa 1996)
Sometime in late 1992, I attended a seminar on how to do ministry with Senior Adults in Peoria, Illinois. There was this feeble, little man who inched up to the platform to speak (like Tim Conway used to do on the “Carol Burnett Show”) and opened by proclaiming weakly, “God is Good.” The people politely countered, “All the time” He quietly responded, “All the time” and they courteously finished, “God is Good.” I remember thinking to myself, “This is almost cool! I wonder what would happen if living people tried it?” The potential of this greeting captivated me and all I could think about was putting a V10 engine and glass packs on this thing and flooring it the very next week at church. When Sunday came around I explained to them that I was going to say, “God is Good!” and they were to respond with great enthusiasm, “All the Time!” “All the Time!” “God is Good!” Our first four or five tries were a little lame but after that “God is Good” not only caught on but it became an institution. Every worship service I conducted at the Sumner United Methodist Church began with a rousing, “God is Good!” It was a bold and upbeat way to begin our worship services…until that exceptionally cold winter.
It was Advent 1996. It was the year before we moved here. Advent in the United Methodist world is a traditional time of preparing our hearts for the arrival of the Christ Child. In the summer we had found out that Melissa was expecting our third child. I was crazy excited. Around Thanksgiving time, they did a sonogram and I got a look at him for the first time. He was waving one hand above his head and I said, “Melissa, we are going to have a Pentecostal.” We called him Liam and I could not wait to meet him! On a cold December Wednesday, while I was conducting the funeral of a church patriarch, Melissa was informed by her doctor that there was no heartbeat and Liam had died in her womb. We were devastated. Nothing could be done until the next week and Sunday loomed in between. It was as if the best Christmas present in the world had been placed under the tree only to be snatched away in a cruel cosmic joke. Never had I felt so utterly…lost. All I could think about was the expectation that I would start the worship service with a cheery “God is Good!” I had no idea how I would do that. Never had I less perceived God to be good and the prospect of proclaiming it was more than my broken heart could bear.
These were the days before hospital privacy laws and everyone in our “One Casey’s Town” (though we were yet to actually get a Casey’s) knew what was happening. Rural folks know well how to dance with life and death so they gave us space to hurt and when we walked into the church, folks steered clear. On the bulletin were printed the names of Melissa Bishop followed by Shane Bishop. Melissa was scheduled to open by singing a song called “Harmony” with her best friend Sherri Baker about God’s gift of a baby boy to creation. It seemed…ironic and cruel. I knew something of the depth of her pain, there was no way she could do that. I was to follow with a rousing, “God is Good!” I could not possibly imagine how any of that was going to happen either.
To my amazement, when the prelude concluded, Melissa (with our dead son in her stomach) quietly arose from her seat and bravely sang of a baby’s arrival long ago. My stolid congregation sat riveted with quivering lips, fighting back uncharacteristic tears as they marveled at the Spirit-energy of this incredible woman temporarily caught between a rock and a holy place. As I sat in awe of Melissa’s inner strength and the sheer power of her spirit, something occurred to me. If God is not good at this very minute; I mean “right now” then He wasn’t good last week and wouldn’t be good a month from now either. It was as if God spoke to me, “I am either good or I am not good and you have about thirty seconds to figure it out.” When the song ended, I walked behind that wooden pulpit decidedly undecided and in a split second decision, I shouted for my soul, “God is Good!” to which the people nearly raised the roof as they replied, “All the Time!” “All the Time!” “God is Good!” I was re-converted. For the past sixteen years, I have opened each of our worship services at Christ Church with God is Good but you need to understand that I know and Melissa knows that believing in the goodness of God is impossible until the pain of your own story gets swallowed up in the victory of a larger one.
-Rev. Shane L. Bishop, a Distinguished Evangelist of the United Methodist Church, is the Senior Pastor of Christ Church in Fairview Heights, Illinois.