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By Norris Burkes Nov 21 2021
I met Pastor Terry Lawrence so long ago that I’m certain I haven’t properly recalled his name, but his story is worth retelling.
During the summer of 1979, I served as a summer missionary for the Southern Baptist churches in Northern Nevada. I was one of hundreds of college students working nationwide, helping churches conduct Bible schools and summer youth camps.
Each missionary stayed within a region of churches, changing locations each week until he’d worked in a dozen churches. Most pastors hoped their missionary would be an ambitious college kid who could reenergize their youth group.
The pastors shared a pun amongst themselves to rate the energy of these workers – “Summer Missionaries – and some-r-not.”
I was more the “not” kind.
Sometime in midsummer, I was assigned to Lawrence’s church. The pastor was a slight, lanky man, prematurely bald, whose matter-of-fact way of speaking rang like the gospel truth.
After Sunday service, we sat down in his office where he outlined my upcoming week. Partway through, he noticed the drift in my love-lost eyes and asked what was on my mind.
So, I dropped my missionary pretense and admitted that I was homesick and pining over a lost girlfriend while trying to rekindle another. I described a depression that was keeping me out of the helping mood.
“It’s true,” he said, “we won’t always feel like serving others, but the life you save this week may actually be your own.”
He had my attention, and this is his story the way I remember it.
“Three years ago, I was here in the office, preparing to leave, when a phone call brought me back to the desk.
“The man on the other end of the line said he was planning to kill himself. He asked if I had anything to say that would change his mind.”
I leaned into Lawrence. “What did you say?”
“I said, “Go ahead.”
“What?” I leaned back. “No way!”
“Yup. I told him, ‘Go ahead. I’m fixing to do the same thing myself.’”
Then Lawrence told me how he had planned to leave his office that day and kill himself in a deserted location. He’d given away his library. He’d written the note and loaded the gun. He “meant business.”
When his caller went silent, Lawrence asserted control of the dead-air space by reversing the caller’s question. He asked the man to suggest reasons why the pastor shouldn’t kill himself.
Miraculously, the stunned man actually listed a few.
“People need you,” he said.
“Who, for instance?” Lawrence asked.
“People like me,” said the caller.
“What about your parents?” the pastor asked. “Don’t they need you?”
For an hour, the two kept swapping reasons the other shouldn’t kill himself, until eventually, they both made an anti-suicide pact.
“See what happened there?” Lawrence asked.
“Umm, kinda,” I said.
“Look, kid. I doubt your love life is edging you toward suicide, so I need you to see how recommitting to helping others with their problems helped me discover a way to work through my own.”
Today, after forty years in ministry, I’ve come to “see what happened there” in that dusty Nevada office.
Lawrence’s talk was steering me away from that cliché thinking that seeks to reduce the size of your problems by comparing yourself to someone in a worse situation.
He was telling me that we aren’t so much broken people as we are interconnected broken people. In other words, there is scant help for those unwilling to help others.
Christian scripture puts it succinctly in Luke 6:38: “Give away your life; you’ll find life given back, but not merely given back—given back with bonus and blessing. Giving, not getting, is the way. Generosity begets generosity” (The Message Translation).
By the way, that girlfriend I was trying to reconnect with was my wife, Becky. See what happened there?
Give back by joining my volunteers in Honduras next year. See https://chispaproject.org/volunteertrip. Contact Chaplain Norris at firstname.lastname@example.org or 10556 Combie Rd. Suite 6643 Auburn, CA 95602 or voicemail (843) 608-9715.