Dear Penny, I am a 40-year-old man on a disability pension. I write to a 60-year-old lady who is on Social Security. Somehow she has gotten the idea that we're getting married and plans to come across the United States to meet me. I don't want to marry her, but I don't want to hurt her feelings. Do you have any suggestions?"
"Dear Penny, last week my boyfriend said he loved me, but this week he won't even look at me. I thought love was supposed to last longer than that."
"Dear Penny, one of my girlfriends has started smoking pot really bad. I don't know whether to keep her as a friend or what."
"Dear Penny, I'm 14 and I know all about sex."
I have a unique ministry—writing an advice column in a family-centered weekly magazine. As would be expected, a good part of the mail is from teen-age girls with boyfriend problems, the type of problems that a mere mother could never under stand but that a "dear Penny" in a magazine just might be able to help. A friend and I try to answer them all.
Much of the mail is from sad people, lonely people, hurting people with problems that years of probing the why and how of their lives could not help. Think of the emptiness of life that would allow a 60-year-old woman to cross the country searching for happiness with a man she's never met. Consider the loneliness that led a 40-year-old man to answer a letter in a "friends wanted" section of a magazine. These people need something that only God through His children can give them: a regaining of self-respect and an awareness of their value as children of the King.
A couple of teen-age girls write again and again. Both were neglected children, now being raised by family members who are doing their best to give them a better life than they had before. "Pray for me," Cara writes from New Mexico. "I want to go to California and visit my boyfriend. By the way, my aunt and I have both gone back to school to work for our G.E.D. It's kinda fun."
"Thank you for that book you sent," Darcy writes. "I've started going to church with my grandma. I'm beginning to think that God does care about me."
I've discovered that most of the people who write don't need a social worker or psychiatrist. They don't even need a preacher. They simply need a friend. Alice wrote from a small Eastern town. "I lived with my alcoholic husband for more than ten years and did everything in my power to make our marriage work. I prayed. He was confined to a wheelchair, but he still drank and physically abused both me and my little girl. Finally I left him, and here's the problem. We're in a small town, and everyone thinks it's terrible that I've left a crippled man. They won't let their kids play with my daughter, and she's really hurt by it. What can I do?"
I wrote a common-sense letter giving practical suggestions for finding a job in a new town before moving, suggesting that she might get a friend to help her resettle. I felt inadequate in my advice, having some idea how a mother feels when her child is hurting and she can't prevent it. And when I began the letter, I wrote, "Dear Friend."
Her reply came a few weeks later. "I've found a good job in a town several miles away," she wrote. "When I opened your letter I sat down and cried because you called me 'friend.' I felt like I didn't have a friend in the world and you called me friend. "
Most of the people who write don't really need my advice. They have a fair idea of the best thing to do. But they need a nudge in the right direction. They need reaffirmation that they are God's children, unique, and of infinite value. Those in trouble don't need condemning. They already feel guilty and stupid and ashamed. Take Margaret. "I never drink, only when I'm out with friends," she told me; "maybe once a year." But while visiting a girlfriend several hundred miles away, Margaret drank too much. She passed out on her friend's bed, and sometime during the night her friend's boyfriend raped her. She didn't know it until several weeks later when 16-year-old Margaret realized she was pregnant.
I suggested to Margaret that a lot of Christian couples would be thrilled to give her baby a good home, but she said, "I could never do that." We've been writing for a few months now. By the time you read this, her baby will be here. "I've got to get a job as soon as it comes," she wrote, "so I can pay back my folks for the doctor bills. . . . My mom doesn't much like going out with me now that I'm getting big. I guess she's ashamed of me and I don't blame her."
What can I do? For now, tell her enough about labor and delivery to help take away some of the fears that she mentions. I remind her that God loves her, that both she and her child are precious to Him. Perhaps later I will send her a book on mothering and suggest that she think about the values she wants to teach her little one. But mostly I'm being her friend.
The kids in these deplorable situations aren't bad kids. Not even 14-year-old Lindy, who knows all about sex. Why wouldn't she think she does? The television programs and movies she's been allowed—encouraged—to watch since before she could read or reason have been pretty good teachers. Advertising rein forces her belief that a good body shown off to its best advantage is what counts in this world. The Lindys of today's culture need a Christian perspective to life and loving. They must discover that a lasting love is based on mutual respect and goals, not outward appearances, and that God is a necessary member of a good marriage.
I was touched by a note from Ida, a woman in her 80s. She was lonely, her grandchildren were grown up, "and it's not the style to have babies these days, so I don't even have great-grandchildren to care for. What can I do all day long?"
I kept her letter a while, thinking and asking people for practical suggestions. Some involved getting out of the house (being a hospital "granny"), while others were things she could do alone (writing a family history). I wonder about her and hope that at least one of the suggestions helped. I hope she has become involved with people again, for when she wrote, Ida had stopped living, spending her days lonely and alone.
I'm not an outgoing person. I'm pretty good with little kids, and I can get choked up watching a little grandma hobble into church on her skinny legs. But I'm not one of those people who "never met a stranger." I wish I were more outgoing, but that's my personality.
Why am I telling you this? Because though I'm not great at meeting people, I can write a column. And if I can, so can you. Right now I'm a reluctant working mother of* four kids from preschool to earliteen, and I have a lot more hills to climb before I "know it all." My advice is basically common sense. Now, you have strengths that I don't have, that nobody else has, and you can reach and identify with people that nobody else can.
Have you been married thirty years? Are you still together and happy? Have you and your spouse fought and made up, forgiven and forgotten and are the stronger for it? Then you have a message for today's young couples living in a culture in which divorce is becoming the norm instead of the exception. You have something to say.
Have you raised a family? Did you spend years going without things that you wanted and even needed so the money would stretch to cover the bare necessities? Have you survived? Then you have a mission all your own for people struggling with today's inflation. You have empathy for them and something to say.
Have you spent days in an intensivecare waiting room, waiting . . . waiting . . . waiting for someone you cherish to live— or die? Have you trudged that long, lonely road of grief? You have a special message for those who wait and grieve.
Joan recalls how she felt at 10 years of age when her father died. "I sat on my front steps all alone," she says. "Friends were bustling around, caring for my mother and giving me quick hugs and saying, 'Oh, you poor little thing.' I wanted to die too. Then Mary came, and I'll never forget her as long as I live. She was the greatest comfort."
"What did Mary do?" someone asked.
"She sat next to me, held my hand, and cried. She cried with me. That's all."
A lot of the world doesn't need sermons or lectures. They don't need advice or flowery platitudes or even Bible verses. All they need is someone to sit with them and weep. Someone who has been through the same valley, who knows their fears and who cares.
I know that many people don't follow my advice. I even smiled when I received an answer from a woman who had written telling me how her boyfriend treated her "like dirt." You can imagine what I told her. This was her reply. "I got your letter, but I've decided that I just can't leave him no matter what he does to me. If I really love him, I'll stay with him." You can't win 'em all, they say, but you can try. Carole wrote that she plans to be married in a few months, but when her fiance gets mad he hits her. Hard. Could this be a problem?
What can I say? Again, common-sense advice about problems before marriage intensifying afterward, but this time I went a step further. I gave Carole's letter to a friend of mine who was a battered wife. At one time Shari did not value herself enough to realize that she didn't deserve being beaten up every week or so. Like many battered women, Shari's lack of self-esteem led her to reason her husband wouldn't do it if she didn't deserve what she was getting. Shari had to learn to like herself, to accept herself, before she could accept God's love. Shari is now a happy Christian, and she has something to tell Carole.
Where do you come in as a minister's wife, a woman with needs and problems of her own? You too are special. You have learned through your problems, your successes, yes, even your failures. You can read Christian-oriented books for statistics to back up the things you've learned from simply living. Perhaps a weekly column in your hometown newspaper would be a good place to start sharing your Christian philosophy with the general public.
A lot of people won't read the minister's column, but few can resist an advice column. You can write up a half-dozen problems and answers, using a variety of ages and situations, and submit them to your local paper. Perhaps they'll run them for a time to see whether there's a response. Eventually you might get paid enough to cover your paper and stamps if you choose to answer personally. And you will reach people who would never come into your church, people that no other Christian is speaking to.
In Matthew 25 when Christ told the story of the last judgment, the saved ask the King, " 'When did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee?'" And the King answered them, " Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me'" (verses 37-40, R.S.V.).*