2007-08-02 / Editorial Page

Dear Hearts and Gentle People

We were living in Montgomery, Alabama, many years ago when the Billy Graham evangelistic team came to our church in preparation for an upcoming fall crusade to be held in Birmingham. Good church-going Baptists, we never missed a service, so we were present the night of the big banquet which was held to introduce potential crusade "workers" to the Graham team, workers like me who would work behind the scenes to advertise and promote the event.

We should have looked forward to the evening with eager anticipation but I had a slight problem. I was depressed. I don't mean I was blue, under the weather, in a bad mood, or out of sorts. I was clinically depressed. For reasons I did not understood at the time I would cry at the drop of a hat and any attempts by my friends and family to cheer me up were to no avail.

At the suggestion of a neighbor I sought the services of a counselor, a psychiatrist....okay, a shrink. I felt a strange uneasiness at having to get professional help for what I assumed was something that I would eventually "get over" but I made an appointment with a doctor for the following week.

I remember vividly trying to work up enough excitement to get dressed to attend the banquet, though I felt like crawling under the covers and not coming out til spring. My precious sons, who were five and two at the time, seemed to be oblivious to my moods and for that I was thankful. My husband traveled during the week so he, too, was not necessarily affected by my emotional state.

Holding out hope that a visit with the positive people on Graham's team would perk me up I took a nerve pill and headed, with my boys in tow, to the church fellowship hall. The noise was deafening. Folks were slapping one another on the back, laughing, hugging, and generally having a high old time when we got there. This is the place to be, I thought.

Before long the coordinator of the event called the group to order and directed us to serve our plates and take our seats. I reluctantly eased my way up to the line and, without speaking to anyone, took my plate and dutifully filled it with some of the best "covereddish" fare in the state of Alabama.

To look at me one would never have guessed that I was dying inside and that I was on the very verge of tears every time I came eye-to-eye with anyone. I have learned since that this is typical of depression. We are such masters at hiding our hurts, our imperfections, our sins, and our pain, especially in the presence of such obvious joy and good will, there is little wonder that so many of us, as Shakespeare said, live lives of quiet desperation.

As luck would have it, or providence some might say, I sat down and found myself directly across the table from Mr. Graham's southeastern crusade coordinator. He was making small talk with the lady to my left and before long the subject at hand turned to "God's ability versus His willingness to heal mankind of all his various spiritual, mental, physical, and emotional maladies."

From what I could tell, the gentleman was adamant that God was most certainly both willing and able to heal us of all our infirmities, instantly, and with no help from anyone or anything else, thank you.

My heart sank. I wanted to crawl under the table. Here I was, a Christian, taking my troubles to a shrink who may or may not even believe in God. Guilt settled around me like a heavy cloak.

"Mr. Wilson," I said, my voice trembling, "Do you think it's okay for a Christian to seek help from a psychiatrist?"

Dear Hearts, I will never forget his flippant answer, for it pierced my heart like a thousand arrows. Before I had even finished my sentence he looked at me, pointed his finger in my face and said in a stern voice, "Little Lady, forget psychiatrists! All you need is Dr. Jesus!" Then he turned away and began a new conversation with the gentleman on his right.

I was hurt, vaguely annoyed and, as my mother would say, mortified. I had not only failed to find comfort in this holy man's answer to my question, I felt condemned by Almighty God for even asking it.

Now, friends, you can say that I took what he said out of context, that I didn't understand what he meant, that I refused to see the truth in what he said, or that I was wrong to expect more from the man than his limited knowledge of the world of psychology would allow. Any or all of that may have been the case.....but what he said to me, a hurting, searching child of God, lacked one powerful, healing, life-changing component of God's truth......compassion.

Only the grace of God can give us hearts of compassion and understanding minds and then only when we avail ourselves of it. Looking back, in this man's defense maybe he, at that moment, just needed a little more grace himself. Whatever the reason for his flippant response to me that night, it took me a long time to forgive him, and even longer to realize that the world is full of people who are hurting who want to know why, and what they can do to stop the pain.

I've said all that to say this. These people are your neighbors, your friends, your family, the woman in the checkout line, the man at the gas pump, the child on the playground. I meet more people that I know these days in my counselor's office than I do at the grocery store. It's true. That isn't good or bad, it's just a fact. And finally, after all these years, I can truthfully say that I'm thankful God uses counselors (yes, even shrinks) to minister to those who need more help than a worn cliche' can offer.

Should you ever be given an opportunity to hear another's heartcry, dear hearts, or dry another's tears, please, please, don't speak to that pain with tired cliches'. Life is seldom so simple that one quick retort, no matter how well-intentioned, can heal a broken heart or give direction to a floundering soul.

Would it not be better to listen first, try to understand, and then advise with caution? Better yet, seek to know the one in pain, his struggles, his hurts, his needs, then set about doing what we can to help alleviate his suffering? I firmly believe that we are here on this earth to help each other, to pull one another up when we are down, to encourage one another when we've lost hope, and to try our best to see the world as others see it. And that takes time, it takes work. It takes more than a snippy slogan to show concern for our fellow man, or even for ourselves.

We have become a nation of people guided by church marquee theology. Pithy, funny little sayings meant to speak to people's needs, attract attention, defend doctrine, encourage, teach, or yes, even to guilt or shame. You've seen them.

God answers knee-mail. The wages of sin is death; repent before payday. The best vitamin for a Christian is to B1. Eternity: Smoking or Non-Smoking?.

I'm not a fan of billboard Christianity but I saw a church marquee in West Virginia a couple of months ago that got me to thinking. It said,

"If you can read this sign, you can still be forgiven." Nice sentiment but not technically true. In reality, even if you can't read the sign, you can still be forgiven. This is how half-truths, along with other catchy phrases, often lead to confusion and ultimately faulty theology. Bumpersticker pschology is used to amuse, not educate.

Life is not easy, nor is it always fair. We get down. We get depressed. Fortunately, emotional health is not a prerequisite for eternal salvation. In fact, the world is full of godly people who have suffered from occasional or longstanding depression. For many, depression is an inherited medical condition and it has little to do with whether or not you are "blessed." The same is true for other ills, as well.

I suspect that Dr. Graham's assistant had no intention of being heartless or offensive to me. He was probably not thinking at all, like many of us at times. Which is why we should be careful not to over-simplify another's concerns or be too quick to offer pat advice. The Indians would have put it like this, "Before you advise or criticize, walk a mile in my moccasins."

I wish life were as simple as some would have us to believe but it isn't. Poop happens. We succeed. We fail. We laugh. We cry.

Life is sometimes extremely complicated, often painful, and is fraught with good and bad. It is a millon questions and only a handful of answers. It is many things to many people. In truth, it defies description, especially ones found seven feet high surrounded by neon lights.

Be kind to others, try to see life from their point of view and know that we will never plumb the depths of God's love or the intricacies of the universe. If it were possible to capture the meaning of life in a nutshell I suppose a comment made by a fellow struggler several years ago could do it about as well as anything else.

"Life is like a box of chocolates. You just never know what you're gonna get." (Forrest Gump, 1994)

Return to top