However, I have a blouse that has inspired even perfect strangers to inform me that I put my shirt on backwards. The blouse is a deep pink, with an embroidered vine trailing down the right side on the front, studded with shiny silver beads, the flowers themselves a raised pattern of brown felt and the leaves an olive green. But that same vine also crawls up over my shoulder and falls down the back. And thus we have the problem. Most people’s shirts have the design only on one side, while mine is on both.
I was actually standing at a supermarket deli, waiting for my number to come up when a lady tapped me on the shoulder and whispered conspiratorially in my ear, to save me embarrassment, I suppose, “Honey, you put your shirt on backwards this morning.” At that I turned around, smiling, and she was suddenly no longer so quiet. “OH!” she blurted out, and then it was her turn to be embarrassed when she saw that my shirt was on frontwards after all.
I had no ill will toward her. She was only trying to help. And this morning she is helping us see something very important. Too often we judge other people’s affairs from our perspective. Somehow from where we sit, we can figure out all the “right” ways to handle things, the “right” things to say, the “right” things to do. Too often we are looking at the back of the shirt while judging it to be the front.
I suppose I had my nose rubbed in that lesson for the first time when I became a young preacher’s wife. Everyone in the church could tell me exactly what I ought to be doing, what my husband ought to be doing, what my children ought to be doing, what I should and should not spend money on, how many hours my husband should spend in the church office, and whom we should visit. They could also figure out how much time it took my husband to prepare his sermons and Bible classes.
At some point along the years, a brother suggested that Keith should be receiving $800 a week (it was a good while back). Another man stuttered out, “Wh-wh-why that’s $200 an hour!” In yet another place a man said that all the visiting requirements of the New Testament should be handled by the preacher “because he has so much time left over”—that’s after those four hours he works on Sundays and Wednesdays, I suppose.
I really think as a whole the church is much more informed about the work a preacher actually does, the time he must spend studying in order to answer all those “Bible questions” off the top of his head and to preach intelligible lessons, the personal Bible studies he holds as well as the one-on-one counseling sessions with struggling brothers and sisters, and the 24/7 on-call nature of his work. But until you have actually done the work yourself—or seen your husband or father do it—you don’t really get it.
And when we see our brothers and sisters struggling, it’s easy to think we know the right things to say to comfort them and the right advice to give. We are often mistaken. Until we have experienced something similar we need to be cautious in our words. Having said that, let me reassure you that truth is still truth whether I have experienced exactly what another has or not, but compassion and empathy can go a long way in helping a hurting soul do the right thing no matter how hard it is to do. Acting like an unmerciful, self-righteous know-it-all can do far more harm than doing nothing at all.
Sometimes the shirt is on frontwards after all.
Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. (1Pet 3:8)