Looking for a Safe Place…

safe place church

When I pastored in rural Kentucky, we lived in the parsonage (a house the church provides for the pastor).  Because this church always wanted to know where to find the pastor, they located the parsonage right next to the church.  Everyone in that rural community knew if I was home, they felt great liberty to call me and tell me someone had left a light on in the church next door.

After three years, my wife and I sensed the time had come to move on.  A church in Louisville had contacted me, expressing interest.  We set a time to meet with them, on the next Sunday evening.

On the appointed Sunday evening, I was finishing tying my tie, when there was a knock at my door.  Opening it, there was a young woman, about 23, wearing jeans and rubber farm boots.

“Are you the preacher?” she asked.  I told her I was.  “I want to kill myself,” she said.

I wish I could tell you my first thought was “You poor woman,” but it actually was “Not now!  I have an interview!”  My pastoral gear did kick in, however, and I invited her in.  Gina and I listened to her story – she worked on one of the dairy farms, her marriage was falling apart, and she felt like there was no hope.

I knew this woman’s troubles were over my head.  I told her we would get her the help she needed.  I called the chair of the committee and explained the situation (if you must cancel a pastor search committee interview, dealing with a suicidal woman is a pretty good excuse).  Gina and I drove the women into Louisville, to the hospital where I had interned as a chaplain.  On the way there, I asked her why she came to our house.  She said, “I figured it was a safe place.”

Mental illness touches one out of five Americans.  Chances are pretty good you know someone who struggles with a mental health issue.  Mental illness can manifest as addiction, depression, anxiety, outbursts of anger, disorientation, and disconnection from reality.  In my years as a pastor, people have sought me out for these issues and more.

Pastors by nature know a little about a lot of things.  We’re generalists.  We are not really equipped to treat people who have mental health issues.  But we can do two important things.

First, we can make sure the churches we serve are places of grace.  We need to make sure people know they can be real about what’s going on in their souls.  When the disorientation of mental illness begins, we want people to know that they can talk about it to spiritually wise people at church.  People with mental illness will not be judged, but loved.  As churches and pastors, let’s pledge to do our best to steer people toward the best care available.

Second, we can pray for God’s peace in souls.  I believe our God heals not just the body, but also thoughts and feelings.  We do not pray enough for healing of troubled souls.  There is a peace that passes all understanding, and God wants to give that to people.  How much time do we spend praying for God’s peace for people?

Our mayor has proclaimed this weekend as the Mental Health Weekend of Faith.  He has shared with me and other pastors this is a growing concern in our community.  We know that ultimately, spiritual power can overcome the evil that robs people of mental health.  This why Jesus’ church must be a place of grace for all; therefore, Jesus’ people must boldly pray for the peace of God to richly dwell in every heart.

A month after that Sunday night, there was again a knock on my door.  When I opened the door, it was the same young woman, with a bright smile on her face.  She told me at the hospital she had gotten some medicine, which she considered a gift from God.  She had talked to some helpful people, who gave her a different perspective.  She found out she loved her life and was making plans to move ahead.  I celebrated with her, prayed with her, and then stood up to say good-bye.  She looked me in the eye, and said, “Thank you for being there, for being a safe place when I needed one.”

Somewhere in our town, someone needs a safe place of grace and a powerful prayer of peace.

My Many Mothers…

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Don’t get me wrong, my mother was an amazing woman. Growing up, she came home every afternoon from school, saddle up her horse and rode out with her brother Pete to doctor screw-worm calves across 10,000 acres of marsh and swamp.  She was the most popular girl in her graduating class at Lake Placid High School (of course, there were only six).  She married my father, who though a tough cowboy, still lived with his mother. When Daddy died, Momma resisted all suggestions that she sell the ranch, move into town and live a life of ease.  Momma had strength.

I suppose Momma once had a nurturing side, but when Daddy died, something inside her died.  I remember Momma as fun and strong.  As I look back, the weight she carried was unreal.  But she didn’t have time to explore her feelings; there was work to be done and she did it.  She had a lot of steel, not much cushion.

But God put other mothers in my life.

When I went to my Aunt Frieda Gill’s house, the rules were different.  We could have cokes and Hershey’s Chocolate Bars.  Comic books were forbidden at our house.  Not at Aunt Frieda’s.  There was a stack of comic books you could read till your eyes hurt.  Aunt Frieda gave me a lot of joy.

My aunt Faye Shackelford owned the S&S Grocery Store in town.  Whenever Momma went in to buy groceries, Aunt Faye would call me over and tell me to get a candy bar – but not to tell Momma she let me have one.  It would be years before I realized you had pay for candy bars.  Aunt Faye taught me grace means something you get, something really good for free.

My aunt Mildred Hadsel (we called her “Aunt Mooie” for some reason) would pick me up and go riding around the county to look at new houses people were building.  I can still see her, in her heels and holding her purse, exploring Adrian Chapman’s house while it was under construction.  “Good Lord,” she said, “You’d have to ride a bicycle from the bedroom to the kitchen for breakfast!”  Then we’d go to Senterfitt’s to get a cheeseburger and fries.  That was the best part of all – I didn’t have to share fries with my brother.  Aunt Mooie gave me taste for exploration – and she spoiled me a little too.

My aunt Neta Prescott kept me often when I was small.  Every afternoon she would settle into her recliner for a nap.  I would watch “Let’s Make a Deal” and she would emit gentle snores.  About four in the afternoon, a thunderstorm would come up.  Thunder and flashes of lighting could scare a five-year-old boy, but Aunt Neta would sleep right through the storm.  Something about her steady breathing made me feel safe in the storm.

My aunt Iris Hendry was my defender.  Once she told my brothers to stop picking on me or she would sit on them.  They did not heed her warning and keep it up.  The next thing they knew, Aunt Iris had picked them both up, put them on the couch, and sat on them.  Aunt Iris was not fat, but she was also not small.  The couch erupted with cries for mercy.  Aunt Iris protected me.

Bert Calder helped my Momma at home and watched over us.  I loved Bert.  All I had to do was tell her Steve was picking on me (whether he was or not), and she would get on to him.  Bert was always on my side.

Somewhere in college I learned that parents were supposed to be perfect.  Any problem in your life could be traced back to your parent’s failures, according to Freud.  I spent too much time being angry at my mother for not being perfect.

As I matured, I realized Momma did the best she could.  Given who she was, what she was dealing with, she did what she could.  It’s not fair to be mad at someone for not giving what they don’t have.  One the most important things I did as a follower of Jesus was to forgive my mother for not being perfect.

God was gracious enough to give me other women in my life who filled in the gaps.  I’m not sure Hillary Clinton is right, that it takes a village to raise a child, but I know it took a whole lot of women to raise me.  God provided many mothers for me.

This Mother’s Day, forgive your mother for not being perfect.  She probably was doing the best she could.  I’ll bet God sent some other women into your life to mother you in the best sense of the word.  Give God thanks for the many mothers in your life.

And if you are a woman, chances are pretty good someone besides your own child needs you to pour into them.  You might be the mother God sends to help someone know they matter, they are safe, and someone is on their side.



A Word to Your Circle…

circle of influence


Wayne Collier helped us work cows after my father had died.  I was four years-old, riding my one-eyed Shetland pony, gathering up cows.  I felt so big.  Even a four-year-old on a Shetland pony can move a cow.  Then I rode up too close to the herd and Wayne hollered at me, “Son, don’t ride up on them cows.  They’ll scatter.”

It was the first time I remember anyone calling me “son.”  “Son” is what older men in my neck of the woods called young boys when they needed to correct them, but not be harsh with them.  Since my father died, I didn’t hear “son” too often.  Wayne that day gave me a word of affectionate correction when he called me “son.”  I’ll never forget it.

My cousin Tiny Durrance grew up with my Dad.  His home in Chattanooga was halfway between Florida and Kentucky, where I went to school.  Half-a-dozen times I stopped and spent the night.  Tiny would start to tell stories about my Daddy.  He would tell about the time Daddy overturned the truck with fifteen men on back, when Daddy knocked out a man’s eye in a juke joint across the county line, and when Daddy’s mare beat his cousin Floyd’s colt in horse race one Sunday after church.

Tiny gave me memories of my Daddy I didn’t have.  He gave me stories I needed to hear, stories I stored up in my soul, to pass on to my children.  I’ll never forget those stories.

Doing graduate work at seminary was like living in a war zone.  The competition was fierce, the expectations high.  You never knew when a stray verse of Hebrew would be lobbed at you in class.  Halfway through my Ph.D. studies, I realized I did not have a scholar’s temperament.  I really didn’t care how many variations of conjunctions there were in the book of 1 Chronicles.  I decided to finish my degree anyway, but it was like giving birth to watermelon.  My supervisor, Dr. Marvin Tate was patient beyond belief with my missed deadlines and immature conclusions.

After I left school and came to pastor Alice Drive, I sent a weekly newsletter to Dr. Tate (we mailed them in those days before the internet).  One day my assistant told me a Dr. Tate was on line one and asked if I wanted to speak to him.  I immediately broke into a cold sweat; had I failed to turn in a paper?  Were they revoking my degree?

Dr. Tate came on the line and told me a column I had written about women in ministry was the best summation of the issue he ever read.  He asked permission to use it with his Sunday School Class.  Then he asked if I ever considered being a full-time writer.   In that moment, I received an affirmation I never dreamed of.  A simple phone call healed many of the scars I incurred during Ph.D. wars.  I’ll never forget his call.

One day I felt this strange prompting to write a thank you note to John Ortberg.  John’s books have grown my soul through the years.  He introduced me to Dallas Willard, who in turn challenged me to go deeper in my walk with Jesus.  I met John once in a conference in the bathroom.  It’s an odd place to meet a hero.  We didn’t shake hands.

John had added so much to my life, I felt the need to say “thanks.”  I wrote a note, sent it to his church, and felt like I had done what God wanted me to do.  A few weeks later, I received a note back from John.  It simply said, “Thank you Clay.  Your note encouraged me.  Appreciatively, John.”  It must have taken him 10 seconds to write.  I keep in my desk drawer to this day.  I’ll never forget that note.

Each of these men were people of influence in my life.  In their circle of influence, they reached out and communicated something positive.  Their words and stories helped my soul.

There are people in your circle of influence.  They need encouragement.  They need something positive.  They need your response.  You are a person of influence and your words and stories matter.

You may think your influence doesn’t matter.  You are wrong.  It matters a lot.  There are people in your circle who need your blessing.  Bless them.  They will never forget it.