Dr. Thomas Lane Butts: Just Listen

I get many great stories forwarded to my computer. Sometimes they are so heartwarming that I use them in a sermon or column. Experience has taught me to check them out on two or three of the verifying sources such as Snopes.com, TruthorFiction.com or Hoax.com. On one or two occasions when I have failed to verify a story or quote, I have received stern reprimands from readers or listeners who did check them out and found they were untrue and/or incorrectly attributed.

Several years ago, I used a story attributed to Erma Bombeck in a sermon that was aired on a national broadcast. I had read the story in a sermon written by one of the best and most learned preachers in the country. He used the story without sourcing it, and I used it and attributed it to that preacher's sermon. It was such a good story that I received several requests for the source. I knew it had to be true, but after weeks of searching, I could not find the source. I was embarrassed!

Last week, while visiting in the home of friends, I was waiting for them to drive me to a speaking engagement. While waiting I noticed on their bookshelf a book by Erma Bombeck. I thumbed through the book and there it was - the story for which I had been searching for years! I was ecstatic.

I do not recall ever using the story in a column after having been "burned" by using it in a sermon. Here is an edited form of the story. And, for those who need the source, it is on pages 196-198 of a book by Erma Bombeck, which is titled "If Life Is a Bowl of Cherries, Why Am I in the Pits?", published by McGraw-Hill, Circa 1971. So there now!

Erma opined that it was one of those days in which she wanted her own apartment - unlisted. Her son had just finished telling her in detail about a movie he saw, punctuating every sentence with "you know" and "like".

There were three phone calls - strike that - three monologues that could have been answered by a recording.

In the cab from home to the airport, she continues, I got another assault on my ear, this time by a cab driver who was rambling on about his son who he supported in college, and was in his last year, who put a P.S. on his letter saying, "I got married. Her name is Diane". He asked me, "What do you think of that?" And proceeded to answer the question himself.

There were thirty whole beautiful minutes before my plane took off...time for me to be alone with my own thoughts, to open a book and let my mind wander. A voice next to me belonging to an elderly woman said, "I'll bet it's cold in Chicago".

Stone-faced, I answered, "It's likely".

"I haven't been to Chicago in nearly three years", she persisted. "My son lives there".

"That's nice", I said, my eyes intent on the printed page of the book.

"My husband's body is on this plane. We've been married for fifty-three years. I don't drive, you know, and when he died a nun drove me from the hospital. We aren't even Catholic. The funeral director let me come to the airport with him".

I don't think I have ever detested myself more than I did at that moment. Another human being was screaming to be heard and in desperation had turned to a cold stranger who was more interested in a novel than the real-life drama at her elbow.

All she needed was a listener...no advice, wisdom, experience, money, assistance, expertise or even compassion...but just a minute or two to listen.

It seemed rather incongruous that in a society of super-sophisticated communication, we often suffer from a shortage of listeners.

She talked numbly and steadily until we boarded the plane, then found her seat in another section. As I hung up my coat, I heard her plaintive voice say to her seat companion, "I'll bet it's cold in Chicago".

I prayed, "Please, God, let that stranger listen".

Thanks, Erma. We still miss you.