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Though none go with me, p.29
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       Though None Go with Me, p.29

           Jerry B. Jenkins
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  “And now,” he added with a flourish, “we have a particular surprise for you, because, Elisabeth Grace LeRoy Bishop, this is your life!”

  Just like Ralph Edwards, the pastor read from a big scrapbook. Slides were projected on the wall, depicting converted black and white photos of Elisabeth as an infant, a young girl, an adolescent, and so on. Many elicited gales of laughter as well-known church members were also portrayed younger, thinner, and with more or different-colored hair. The changes in fashion also amused everyone. Elisabeth was stunned to silence to be reminded of so many students and fellow parishioners from years hence.

  From out of her field of vision came the mature voice of a young woman. “You may not remember me,” she said, “but I was in your Sunday school class twenty years ago. I’m thirty now, and my hair is darker. Back then you called me a towhead, and I was offended until I learned that simply meant that I was blond.”

  The pastor announced, “Mrs. Bishop, welcome one of your many students from the 1940s, Irene Gammil, now Irene Hamilton!”

  “Irene?” Elisabeth gasped, as the woman mounted the platform and hugged her.

  “We all made it,” Irene said, as Elisabeth tilted her head back to search for some vestige of the little girl she remembered.

  “All of you?”

  “That’s right,” Pastor Clarkson said. “All seven of your primary girls are here from your class of 1945.”

  One by one the women took the microphone and told what Elisabeth had meant to them, how she had taught them to pray, to memorize Bible verses, to tell others about Jesus. All but one were married and had children. Those had Christian husbands, and all seven were active in their local churches. Three were Sunday school teachers.

  Elisabeth wanted to spend time with each of them but barely had time to collect herself before an elderly woman was ushered in. The bent lady held the microphone close to her mouth in shaking hands and spoke so quietly that a hush fell over the place. “You don’t need to hear my voice from offstage, Elisabeth, because you wouldn’t recognize me anyway. I haven’t seen you for exactly forty-four years. This white hair was red back then, when I attended your wedding right here in this church. I’m eighty-four years old now, but I wouldn’t have missed this for the world.”

  She looked at Elisabeth expectantly, but all Elisabeth could do was open her hands in puzzlement. “You knew me as Rose,” the woman said. “Rose Morton. I worked with your father, and truth be told, I explained to you the facts of life.”

  Elisabeth covered her face in embarrassment while Miss Morton absorbed the laughter and applause. “Now if I can be serious for a moment,” she said, “I want you to know, if you ever doubted it, that you were the apple of your father’s eye. He was so proud of you and loved you with all his heart.”

  Elisabeth felt tears welling and a sob rising, but she merely smiled and applauded, glad she did not have the floor. What a treat it would be to greet her father’s nurse again after so many years.

  Frances Childs strode out with the microphone, eschewing mystery and announcing that “Elspeth would know my voice from down the block!” She recounted their lifelong friendship, the ups and downs, and how she was once told not to call Elisabeth Elspeth anymore. “I found out that was her beloved Will’s name for her, and I gladly relinquished it to his memory until now. It’s no secret Elisabeth was and is more spiritual than I. I’m grateful she never condescended to me over it. With her husband in the hospital for all those years, still she taught, sang, played, attended, and everything. I couldn’t be happier than to call her my friend. I just hope I outlive her, because I’d like to say this at her funeral.”

  Elisabeth laughed as she waved off her old friend, then embraced her, knowing she would soon lose the battle with her tears.

  The daughter of missionaries Elisabeth had written to for decades spoke next and told how much her faithfulness had meant to them. Pastor Jack Hill’s daughter, whom Elisabeth had never met, was now retired from the mission field herself and spoke of her parents’ glowing letters about young Elisabeth.

  A middle-aged man was next. “I met you only once,” he said, “and I would not expect you to remember. I was an aide at the rest home where your Aunt Agatha spent her last days. Anyone who knew her knew how she was perceived, and however bad that was, it was probably accurate. But she loved you, Elisabeth. If you ever wondered what happened to the list of blessings you wrote out as a child, I’m here to tell you. She entrusted it to me.” He pulled a sheet from his pocket and unfolded it. “‘My blessings: God. Christ. Holy Spirit. Bible. Church. Father. House. Warmth. Brain. Curiosity. Books. Lamp. Food. Bed. Clothes. Training Hour. Friends. Aunt Agatha (sometimes).’”

  He turned to face her. “As you know, your aunt made her peace with God before she died.”

  The now sixty-year-old son of itinerant evangelist Kendall Hasper told of how his father never forgot the night Elisabeth dedicated herself to God as a thirteen-year-old. A girl Elisabeth had not seen since camp as a teenager said Elisabeth had been a model to her “of devotion to Christ, of how even the most menial task could be done for the glory of God.”

  A woman’s voice came through the P.A. system. “Being five years younger than you seemed like a big deal forty-five years ago, Elisabeth. That was when I was working at Snyder’s with you, and getting away with murder because I was A.W.’s niece. Is it too late to say I’m sorry?”

  A man with a thick southern accent drawled, “Ah ’member you and yore husband-to-be bein’ more’n kind to me and my brother and sister and cousins when we was living with y’all at the boarding house. I’m Carl, Will’s nephew.”

  The tears finally burst from Elisabeth when she heard the unmistakable voice of Charles Jackson, the orderly at the State Hospital who had tended to both Will and Bruce. He was white-haired now, but she recognized his voice immediately and would have known him anywhere. “I’m a believer and have been for ’s long as I can remember,” he said, “but I don’t guess I’ll ever see a better example of love and faithfulness than I saw in you, ma’am, standing by your husband and then your son. Sitting there singing, reading your Bible, writing them letters, why, you were an example to me, ma’am, and I’ll always say I was proud to know you.”

  Elisabeth saw the tears roll down his cheeks as he bent to hug her, and they both held tight as they wept.

  A man in his late thirties recounted growing up on the same street as the Bishops and told the story of Bruce working the donut man for five for a nickel. “We all knew he got that negotiating skill from his mama,” he said.

  The next man said, “I don’t reckon there are too many people in this room that’s done time in the Jackson pen, but I was a cellmate of Ben Bishop for nearly two years before he died. He was a troubled guy and gradually lost his memory. But somethin’ that never left him was thoughts of his mama. We all knew ya without meetin’ ya, ma’am, ’cause of what Ben told us and because of all them letters and packages you sent. I finally found the Lord myself a coupla years back, and you had more to do with that than you’ll ever know.”

  Another voice from offstage, but Elisabeth knew immediately to whom it belonged. “I only met you once, ma’am, and that was at your daughter’s funeral. I wasn’t much to speak of as a son-in-law prospect, bein’ older than you and havin’ a past like I did. But you never once made me feel low-class, and your constant letters always encouraged us, and me especially, in my faith.”

  Cliff lumbered into view and Elisabeth stood to embrace him. She couldn’t wait to talk more with him.

  She leaned to Lisa, who held her hand in both of hers. “I have to go to the bathroom in the worst way. Is there anybody I’ve ever known anywhere who’s not here?”

  “It’s almost over,” Lisa whispered. “But everybody’s going to want to hear from you.”

  “No, I said—”

  “Just keep it short.”

  “Trust me. If I say anything it’ll be, ‘I’ll be right back.’”

isabeth didn’t recognize Ben’s voice at first. How long had it been since she had seen him? She did the math. He was seventy now, and his voice sounded it. “I was your first fiancé,” he began. “God and life had different plans for us, Elisabeth, but you need to know that you always shone in my mind as the kind of a Christian we all can and should be. No longer can Henry Varley say, as he said to D. L. Moody, ‘The world has yet to see what God can do through one totally dedicated to him.’ Moody said that by the grace of God he would be that one. You made that commitment in your heart, and we here all bear witness to what God has done with your total dedication.

  “I asked to be last today so that I could sing one of your favorite songs.” A pianist began with a quiet introduction to “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus,” but as Benjamin Phillips stepped out to sing, Elisabeth interrupted him.

  “Excuse me,” she said, and Ike Slater quickly passed her a microphone and the pianist stopped playing. “Hold that thought, Ben. I want to hear that song, and I don’t guess there’s any way out of me having to say a few words, but I’m an old lady and I need a break. My granddaughter is going to accompany me, and I’ll be right back.”

  The crowd responded with laughter and applause, and many others followed her lead. Elisabeth was stunned to get a peek at Ben as she made her way out on Lisa’s arm. He was dressed dapper as usual with two-tone spats, beige slacks, and a checked jacket and tie. But he was thin to the point of being almost gaunt, and his hair was pure white and wispy. He still had those sparkling eyes and the olive skin, but the scar on his neck was obvious and his limp severe. Her heart broke for him and all he’d been through. It would be good to get a few minutes with him as well.

  In the rest room Lisa submerged a washcloth in cold water and patted her grandmother’s face. “My heart is so full,” Elisabeth said, “I can’t imagine saying anything without blubbering.”

  “You’ll do fine, Grandma.”

  When they returned to the platform, Ben stood waiting on the floor. Elisabeth caught her breath while others returned to their seats, then she merely nodded to the pianist and to Ben, and the music began again. He turned to look at her as he introduced the song again, and she felt the years melt away. It was as if he could look into her soul. Could this be the same young man who had walked her to her cabin that night at camp so many summers ago?

  “Listen to the words,” he said, “and imagine our beloved birthday girl praying these to her Lord every day of her life.” He turned to sing in his weaker but still precise baritone.

  I have decided to follow Jesus;

  I have decided to follow Jesus;

  I have decided to follow Jesus,

  No turning back, no turning back.

  The world behind me, the cross before me;

  The world behind me, the cross before me;

  The world behind me, the cross before me,

  No turning back, no turning back.

  Though none go with me,

  Still I will follow;

  Though none go with me,

  Still I will follow;

  Though none go with me,

  Still I will follow.

  No turning back, no turning back.

  “May it ever be, Lord,” Elisabeth prayed, closing her eyes and imagining Ben singing as a college student, and her occasionally singing with him. As Ben stepped out of the spotlight and Ike Slater handed her the other microphone, she continued silently, “Calm me and let me say what you want me to say and may these dear ones hear what you want them to hear.”

  “Do you want to stand?” Lisa whispered, reaching for her.

  “I suppose I should.”

  Lisa helped her up, and Elisabeth quickly realized what a toll the party had taken. Her throat felt dry, her heart cracked against her ribs, and she felt unsteady. Yet she owed these precious people her thanks, and Lisa was more right than she knew: Elisabeth would never pass up an opportunity to speak for God.

  “I cannot begin to express,” she began, her voice thick with emotion, “what you have put in my heart today. All I can say is thank you, thank you, thank you. For coming so far. For investing your holiday this way. For reminding me just how old this body is. I can’t wait to greet every one of you, to look you in the eye, to hug you, to celebrate our brotherhood and sisterhood in our Savior.

  “It will come as no surprise to you that whatever spiritual gifts God gave me, public speaking was not one of them. As humbled as I have been with everything that has been said, I will be more than thrilled when my part of this is over. But if you’ll bear with me, I want to tell you a story.”

  She started with the tale of her birth, as her father had recounted so many times. She quickly moved to her conversation with the late Pastor Jack Hill and his wife, Margaret. And then the fateful night, the first session of the protracted meetings with Dr. Kendall Hasper in the summer of 1913.

  “My heart told me that though it was a simple decision, a choice, it was also profound. The knowledge that God was there and that I was talking directly to him flattened me to the ground and made me wish I could dig myself even lower. I felt called, compelled, to make the rest of my life an experiment in obedience. Though I had been warned of the consequences, I could not have imagined what would follow.

  “Many of you know what my life has been like, but many of you don’t. Few would know or remember that it was that very night I learned my dear father was dying of cancer. He was my rock, my everything from a human standpoint. It was as if God were telling me, ‘All right, Elisabeth, if you really want to depend on me, it will have to be on only me.’

  “From that day to this, from outward appearances my life has been chaotic. I survived a fire, rescued a child from drowning, and saw my family spin out of control. I outlived my husband and all three of my children. In many ways I wouldn’t wish my history on my worst enemy.”

  Elisabeth shifted her weight and swallowed, willing away the lump in her throat that might make her point less clear. Her voice was still quavery, but she merely slowed and spoke as directly into the mike as she could: “And yet I am here to tell you that God is faithful.” She was interrupted by amens, something she hadn’t heard in her church in a long time. “He is sovereign. He knows best.” More agreement. “I don’t know or understand or even like every decision he has made on my behalf, but I trust him. The joy of the Lord is my strength. He is my rock and my shield, whom shall I fear?” Elisabeth was nonplussed by actual applause.

  “I remember days,” she forged on, “when I would not have predicted I would reach this birthday. At times I’d rather have been in heaven with the ones I love. But you have made me glad I made it, grateful to be here, to get this tiny glimpse of heaven in advance.

  “If I could be so bold as to leave you with a challenge, it would be to put all your faith in Christ, to make the truth of that song the theme of your heart, and to make your whole life an experiment in obedience. You will be putting your trust in the faithfulness of the Creator of the universe. Though you may look at my life and wonder at the wisdom of that counsel, take it from one who has also sometimes wondered, sometimes regretted, sometimes rebelled: in the end you will not regret it. God is real. He is trustworthy. And he who has begun a good work in you will be faithful to complete it.”

  Elisabeth was grateful for Lisa’s young strength as she dropped back into her chair. She worried she had not done justice to what was in her heart, but everyone in the room rose, and their applause warmed and lifted her. She believed they were honoring God, and she couldn’t ask for more than that.

  The pastor stepped up next to her and took her microphone, waiting for the ovation to fade. “I know you’ll want to greet Elisabeth before you leave,” he said finally, but he was interrupted.

  “Excuse me, Pastor,” Ben said. “I’m grateful for the opportunity to have sung my old friend’s theme song, but I would like also to say a word, if I may.”

  “Certainly,” the pastor said, and he stepped back into the shadows.<
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  “I plan,” Ben began, “to go to the back of the line and take my turn embracing Elisabeth and wishing her well on her birthday. I will shake her hand and try to tell her what she has meant to me over the years, from when we were young and in love to when we grew old and loved others.

  “But I will not be quickly letting go of her hand. I have other plans. I am proud to declare that I will risk rejection from a woman I have loved my whole life. I will somehow find my way down to one of these bony old knees and ask her to consider spending the rest of whatever time God allows us as my wife.”

  The ovation began again, but Elisabeth wrestled the microphone back from Pastor Clarkson and stood, waving for silence.

  “Ben Phillips, I have always known you to be bold to the point of nervy. If you think that declaring yourself in front of all these people will make it harder for me to turn you down, you should see how far my children got when they challenged my authority in public. But you’re an old man, and I’m inclined to forgive you. And if by the time you finally get your audience with me I still have the energy to hear your proposal, I just might be inclined to accept it.”

  Joyce had not spoken and Elisabeth was not aware she was in the room until her turn in line came more than an hour later and she knelt to take Elisabeth’s hands in hers. Elisabeth jumped at the hard coldness of Joyce’s fingers and felt for the woman who looked so much older than her years.

  Joyce whispered, “If anyone could make me want to come back to God, Elisabeth, it’s you. No promises, but just know that I’ve been watching you all these years. That’s all I want to say. That and thanks for your influence on Lisa.” Elisabeth tried to hang on and assure Joyce that God was still waiting for her, but she hurried away.

  Lisa, who had been distracted and heard none of it, put her arm around her grandmother and pulled her close, while the line waited a moment.

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