(Sumner, Illinois, circa 1994)
My friend Craig LeQuatte says, “God is a God of multiplication. He can bless anything but nothing.” Sometimes we don’t do evangelism and faith sharing because we are afraid we will do more “harm than good.” I have found in my years of ministry that even a bad witness is better than no witness. Let me introduce you to Harold.
Harold killed people in World War II and then worked 30 years in a condom factory. These two life events shaped his personality like an irregular pair of shoes eventually deforms the feet. Harold was my neighbor. I walked by his mobile home each day on my way to and from the parsonage to the Sumner United Methodist Church in Sumner, Illinois. I was warned about Harold, “He is a recalcitrant, and curmudgeon old man who doesn’t like anybody but especially hates preachers.” Harold sat outside in good weather and I cheerfully greeted him every morning and evening. He raised a hand but never spoke. Not once. This was our routine and we did it every day. One day, he said, “I heard you like sweet tea.” I replied, “That is not exactly right; I like fresh brewed, southern sweet tea where the sugar is melted in while the water is hot.” He said, “I can make tea like that. Stop by sometime.” I told him I would and walked on to work. (We had been at this for three years; I didn’t want to appear easy.) A couple of weeks later I paid Harold a call and he talked about WW II. He spoke of young men who didn’t return home, described the face of a female German sniper he had shot out of a tree, described the circumstances resulting in two Purple Hearts and watching his own surgery being performed in the chandelier above him. He also spoke of how badly the church had hurt him as a young man and he cried through most of it. He then turned off the tears, said he didn’t need me or the church and I was curtly dismissed. I left a half glass of sweet tea on his table. After that our relationship returned to normal, but I thought a lot about Harold.
One night his wife Edna called me in the early morning hours in a panic, “I can’t control Harold; he is having seizures and the ambulance isn’t here. Can you come and help me?” When I arrived, Harold was in the restroom with his eyes rolled back in his head, pants hanging at his ankles and was urinating all over the place as he convulsed against the wall. I took a deep breath, waded in and helped Edna. All the while Harold was crying out to God. “God, if you will let me live, I will give my life to you.”
The ambulance arrived, strapped Harold to a board and took off for Evansville. I went home and took a really long, really hot shower, threw my clothes in the washing machine and went to bed. A couple of days later, I drove the hour and a half to Evansville and entered Harold’s room. He was in pretty bad shape but that did not keep him from literally turning away from me. We sat in silence for several minutes. When Harold saw I wasn’t going to leave, he whispered over the oxygen tank, “I meant what I said about giving my life to God; I meant that, but you won’t be seeing me in your church. I am going to watch Robert Schuler on television.” For some reason, that one really hacked me off and I got about two inches from the tube up Harold’s nose. “I have a great idea for you Harold; the next time you are having seizures, peeing all over the restroom and are about three quarter’s nuts, why don’t you have Edna give Robert Schuler a call? See if he will get out of bed and come over to your house in the middle of night, help your wife care for you and endure your unique physiological rendition of showers of blessing?” I slammed the hospital door behind me and left. It occurred to me this was possibly not a textbook example of pastoral care. There would be no case study.
Harold was released the next week and though he never said a single thing about our hospital conversation, he never missed another worship service at the Sumner United Methodist Church. He sat about midway back and to my right. Edna sat next to him beaming. Harold was alive and in church; her prayers had been answered. About a year later, I received another call from Edna. Harold was dead in his Lazy Boy and she wondered if I would stop by and sit with her until the Coroner arrived. There we sat in three chairs in the tiny living room; Edna, Harold and me. Edna began to cry, “I don’t exactly know what you said to Harold in the hospital room but it changed his life.” A bit perplexed, I asked, “Did Harold say anything at all about our conversation?” Edna replied, “Not really; he just said you were the first preacher who ever explained things to him in a way he could understand.”
Craig is right. God can bless even the worst example of evangelism in the history of the world. God can bless anything but nothing!
-Rev. Shane L. Bishop, Senior Pastor of Christ Church in Fairview Heights, Illinois, was named a Distinguished Evangelist of the United Methodist Church in 2010.