I am releasing some Christmas stories from my books. This version was in “Exactly as I Remember it.” There will forever be an empty chair at our table. Our unborn son Liam would have been 21 this year. I would have loved to have had the chance to be his dad.
A Story About Re-Conversion
Sumner, Illinois circa 1996
Ever since attending a seminar on how to do ministry with Senior Adults in Peoria in 1993, I had begun each of my worship services at Sumner/Beulah with an energetic, “God is Good!” The people would then respond, “All the Time.” I would repeat, “All the Time” and they concluded with, “God is Good!” It was a bright, cheery way to begin our worship services at Sumner/Beulah…until the cold winter of 1996.
We were well into Advent 1996. Advent is a traditional time of preparing our hearts for the arrival of the Christ Child on Christmas. On Friday, Melissa was informed by her doctor that our third child, a son we were to call Liam, had died in his mother’s womb. Nothing could be done until Monday and Sunday loomed in between. It was as if the hope of Christmas had been dangled before us and then suddenly snatched away in a cruel cosmic joke. Never had I felt so crushed, staggered and well…de-converted. All I could think about was the expectation that I would start the worship services with “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 I could bear. The Sumner church met first and I skipped my customary opening. People noticed and as I drove to Beulah for the second game of my Sunday double-header, I knew I could not duck it again.
These were the days before hospital privacy laws and everyone in my open air, country congregation knew what was happening with us. Rural folks know how to dance with pain and death, and they gave us space to hurt so when we walked in, there people steered clear and then the service began. On the bulletins were the names of Melissa and Shane Bishop. Melissa was scheduled to open the service by singing a song called Harmony with Sherri Baker about God’s gift of a baby boy to creation and I was to open the service with “God is Good!” to follow. During the prelude, I thought, “If the church were placing an order, harmony and hope were two menu items of which Shane and Melissa were all out.” As the congregation sang the beautiful seasonal carols and hymns, the words of U2’s Where the Streets Have No Name raged inside my head. “I want to run. I want to hide. I want to tear down these walls that hold me inside. I want to reach out and touch the flame, where the streets have no name.”
To my amazement, when the prelude concluded, Melissa (with our dead baby in her stomach) quietly arose from her seat and in beautiful harmony sweetly sang of a baby’s arrival long ago. My stolid congregation listened with quivering lips, fighting back uncharacteristic tears as they marveled at the Spirit-energy of this incredible woman whose life had her pinched on this day between a rock and a holy place. As I sat in awe of Melissa’s inner strength, beauty 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 was not good last week either. It was if God spoke to me, “I am either good or I am not good and you have about thirty seconds to decide.”
When the song ended, I stood behind that wooden pulpit and shouted for my life, “God is Good!” to which the people replied, “All the Time!” I was re-converted. I still begin my worship services with “God is Good!” and probably always will. But never assume it is a light or trite kind of thing. Sometimes you have to bite, scratch and claw for it.
-Rev. Shane L. Bishop, A Distinguished Evangelist of the United Methodist Church, has been the Sr. Pastor of Christ Church in Fairveiw Heights, Illinois since 1997.