Besides being the author of more than a dozen books and contributing regularly to The Gospel Coalition, Nancy Guthrie is a much sought-after speaker and retreat leader. She and her husband David live in Nashville where, she says, “life is less about professional pursuits than about the ordinary aspects of being a wife, mother, friend, and follower of Jesus, with clothes to wash, e-mails to answer, and a friend to listen to.”
When I caught up with Nancy, she had just returned from a harrowing visit to the sinus surgeon.
How was the appointment?
Well I learned something new—the vagal response. Know what that is?
Is that where you sneeze when you look at a light?
No. It’s when you faint in reaction to a stressful trigger (at least that’s what Wikipedia says since I had to look it up after my doctor left the room).
So you went vagal at this appointment today?
Well, not out cold . . . but . . .
It scared me when you said you had to take pain medicine BEFORE your appointment.
I know! I scared me too! And thus the “stressful trigger.”
But we’ve got to move on from this topic because my husband keeps being embarrassed when I tell anyone about my sinus fungus that was the size of a half dollar that was removed last week.
Uh oh. I did it again.
I’m glad you survived it. And I’m glad you reached out to offer your stories of humiliation and mortification.
I just want to be a blessing.
As you know, usually the guests on “Sad Stories Told for Laughs” are performers. Their humiliations tend to be a little more public than those of writers.
You mean more public than my sinus fungus?
That one is only as public as you choose to make it. I’m sure our readers will be glad you chose to share. But as I was starting to say, the writer’s mortifications are often more private than the performer’s.
Well, I do get out, you know.
Good. “Out” is where public humiliation happens.
Absolutely. And more specifically, “up front.”
Yes, I was looking at your speaking schedule. You’re up front quite a bit.
I love getting to go out and teach the Bible. And amazingly, people keep inviting me to do it.
I’m not really amazed to hear that. So what kind of odd things happen to an itinerant Bible teacher?
A while back a church in New Orleans invited me to come. It was a great church. Rebuilt after Katrina. And it was my second time there, so we were like old friends.
I was having a bit of trouble with allergies at the time. (Now that I think about it, maybe it was that fungus!) I was taking a decongestant that made me a little dry.
One of the very kind pastors said to me before the evening started, “I put some water up there for you.”
Now I’m not a big drinker when I’m speaking—water or otherwise—but sometimes you just gotta take a sip. Know what I mean?
I do know what you mean.
And you get into the flow and emotion of a message and you don’t want to take some big break and make some big production of actually taking a drink.
I was in the heart of it—getting to the gospel of grace right there in the Garden of Eden after the Fall—and I was getting kinda dry.
You feelin’ it?
Yes. I’m there. Like one of the camels in the Garden of Eden.
But I didn’t want to lose my intensity or flow. So, in my peripheral vision, I could see a bottle down on the floor underneath the podium. So without even looking at it, I smoothly swept down and scooped it up.
Once again, keeping my focus on all my gospel goodness, so as not to distract my listeners, I unscrewed the top without looking at the bottle, and when I took a breath, i took a big swig.
I can’t even guess what’s about to happen.
It wasn’t water.
What was it?
What are you going to do with a mouth full of anointing oil in front of 500 women?
Spew it out like the Laodiceans, I reckon.
Well I didn’t want to spit it out. I felt like I had already desecrated something holy. So I swallowed it.
A whole mouthful?
Oh yeah. Then I spotted that bottle of water the pastor told me he had “put up there” for me underneath my seat on the front row.
This anointing oil was in a regular water bottle?
No, Jonathan. It wasn’t.
What sort of bottle was it? And what made you think you could just drink whatever you wanted to?
I’m feeling a bit judged right now.
Sorry, but I have a reputation for a hard-hitting interviewing style.
What can say? I was focused on my message and completely missed color of the contents inside the bottle. Of course the women were slowly figuring out what I had swallowed. It was that mixed response of agony for me and the inability to contain their laughter.
I could see them mouthing it to each other: “anointing oil.” And then they would pretty much put their heads in their hands and giggle. You just try to get back to the gospel after that.
What is anointing oil made out of?
I guess it’s olive oil. That’s what I tasted well into the night.
Lying in my bed, quite sure that I would never come to the point of finding this at all funny since I was so embarrassed. I texted a few of my friends who I thought would provide comfort and assurance.
If that’s what you expected from them, your friends must be different from mine.
Clearly they’re not. My friend Mary said she was glad she wasn’t there because they would have had to carry her out on a stretcher laughing. But surely my mentor in Bible teaching, Sue Johnson, would grasp the gravity of it and share my angst, right?
One would hope.
She texted back: “Well I’m just glad you don’t smoke, or you would have gone up in flames.”
So what lessons did you learn from this experience?
Look before you drink!
Now I like to take a Diet Coke up there with me. You know, that makes some people crazy. They’re so sure Diet Coke is gonna kill you.
Maybe it will kill you, but probably not while you’re on stage.
Well my thought is: what a way to go.
It’s probably better for you than straight olive oil, in any case.
When you travel, do you often stay in people’s houses?
Sometimes, but rarely. I need some space and some quiet. And I don’t want to worry about needing to be a good guest.
I was fishing for a “bad house guest” experience.
That one is truly too humiliating for public consumption.
Come on, Nancy. We’re all friends here.
No, Jonathan. We’re not that good of friends.
Have you ever had a speaking engagement for which nobody (or almost nobody) showed up?
I have had a book signing when nobody (meaning zero) people showed up. (Anyone who thinks a book signing would be a big boost to your ego has clearly never done one.)
I had to quit doing book signings. That’s more humiliation than I can handle. Actually, you and I first met at a book signing.
I don’t remember a lot of books being signed.
Yeah, that one was pretty sparse.
They all are unless you’re like Tom Clancy or John Grisham.
I once went on a rather odd book tour in California with several other authors. We did some outdoor, festival event in a small town. It was like a ghost town; I’ve never seen so few people on the streets of a populated town. The way I remember it, there were tumbleweeds. It was so depressing.
What’s really sad is when you’re sitting there at the table and they come up and ask you where to find someone else’s book because they think you work there. Can we just agree it is all very awkward?
They think you work there because nobody in their right mind would sit there like that for free. But it does beat digging ditches.
How about awkward book promotions? Any stories there?
Well you have to understand that I started my career out of college as a publicist at a Christian publishing company. We published the BIG authors at the time. And somehow the promotions for my books have never looked much like that.
I must have an exaggerated view of your importance in the book world.
Earlier you had started to tell me about some adventures you had in Colombia…
Usually going to Colombia is not really high on the list of speaking destinations. It certainly wasn’t on mine. I got an e-mail one day from a guy in Bogota asking me if I would come to Colombia to speak.
I knew I was going to speak in some churches, in a military hospital, at a home for teenage moms, and in the women’s prison. And then at the last minute he asked if i would speak at a feeding center for 250 prostitutes.
What do you say when someone asks you to speak to 250 prostitutes except, “yes!”
The first night I was in an open-air church on the edge of the jungle, trying to speak over a generator through a microphone that kept cutting out. The next morning I spoke in a church where dogs came in from outside and walked across the stage as I was speaking. I haven’t had that happen before.
I love South America. I went to Ecuador once, and as we landed in Quito, a German shepherd ran out on the tarmac and chased the plane.
Well, on our way back to Bogota, something very different ended up chasing us: The police.
I knew Colombian law enforcement would catch up with you eventually.
After a few days with our driver, my husband David had asked, “What does it take to get stopped by the police here?” That tells you something about his driving.
I guess he finally did what it took to get stopped by the police?
Yeah. He got out of the car and talked to the guys for a few minutes. Then he opened the back of the range rover and pulled a couple of my books out of the boxes in the back and asked me to sign them.
It was how he got out of a ticket. He gave the policemen signed books by the “very important” American speaker.
I had no idea this interview was going to involve bribery of government officials.
Like I said, Jonathan, I am here to be a blessing. Back in Bogota, we headed to the Colombian military hospital.
I had my nice little talk all planned but then I walked into what was like a big cafeteria with about 500 17- and 18-year old injured soldiers and I knew what I had planned wasn’t going to work at all. So on the way up to the stage I told my translator to scrap that and just follow me.
I’m a gal who likes to work from notes and have it all planned out, but I just started in. I was glad I had a little time in between sentences while my translator translated; it let me think of what to say next.
What kind of change-up did you make?
I just started talking, Jonathan. I was trying to figure out how to make these guys care about anything some white girl from America had to say.
But then there was a huge roar in the room.
I looked up and one of these guys was charging toward the stage with his crutch up in the air like he was going to attack me with it.
The roar was the guys in the back telling the guys in the front to tackle him before he got to me. My husband had stepped outside to get the video camera from the car. He thought I was really killing it with some joke.
I hope there were some less-injured guys in the front.
Fortunately there were. But you know, its kinda hard to get your audience’s attention back after that.
I guess so. Does that mean this story doesn’t end with a hundred 17- and 18-year-olds responding to an altar call?
No, it does not end that way. Should I stop now?
No. Carry on. Hopefully it ends in mortification. You know, that’s the point of this series.
Here’s a picture of how it ended:
Those guys raising their hands…those are the ones getting saved?
If I were a true evangelist, I suppose I would say yes. I think they were just impressed that I hadn’t run out of the place screaming after almost being attacked.
Believe it or not the folks down there actually invited me back, and I went back to Colombia a couple of years later for another 10 days of adventure.
You are an adventurous soul.
Adventure is my middle name, Jonathan. So adventurous that I made a second trip to that military hospital to see what would happen. In fact, we went back to the same military hospital.This time it was a much smaller room with more seriously injured patients.
My translator was a junior in high school.
We got to the empty room and they started wheeling these guys in. You’ve got eye patches and burn victims and broken limbs. Hard stuff. Then right before I was to start speaking they wheeled in a guy who had a rod through his leg, and and open wound on his leg and put him right in front of me.
I bet you had to take a swig of oil just to brace yourself.
Hey now, that was kinda mean to bring that up.
I just got up and started into my sweet little spiel about Jesus.
Then my little translator stopped translating. She looked at me and said, “I think I’m gonna be sick.”
And I’m like, really? you can’t keep going?
So I asked if there was anyone else in the room who speaks English. Nada.
Nobody? Time for an interpretive dance!
Clearly you’ve never seen me dance. I’m so white and formerly Baptist I can barely clap on the beat. The guy who brought us down there—Rafa—was the closest thing a person who speaks English, but mind you, his wife translated everything to him around the dinner table. So we’re not talking a lot of proficiency here. He got up to “translate” and we continued.
I’m just guessing here…but I imagine you’re using some words that aren’t in Conversational English 1. What’s Spanish for justification? Sanctifictation?
That’s exactly the theological word I was grasping for. This is why you’re the Bible study guru.
When I said something real serious and then everybody laughed, I knew there wasn’t not a lot of translating going on, if you know what I mean.
I wish I could have been on both sides of that conversation. Did you ever see “Life is Beautiful”? The Italian movie about the father and son in a concentration camp?
Love that movie.
There’s that scene where the father is “translating” the German’s orders to convince his son that the concentration camp is more like a regular camp.
Here’s a link:
You know the dad in that movie was sparing his son from the horror of war. I’m not sure its an apt comparison to what was happening at the military hospital. Anyway, surprisingly they haven’t invited me back to the military hospital in Colombia.
They probably have their standup comics booked already.
In any case, I’m glad you had the Spirit speaking in groans too deep for words.
Yes. Of course, I am desperate for the Spirit to speak even when I’m teaching in English. But sadly I’m less aware of my need.
Thanks, Nancy, for joining me on “Sad Stories Told for Laughs.” I’m grateful for your work.
Jonathan Rogers is the author of The Terrible Speed of Mercy, one of the finest biographies of Flannery O’Connor we've ever read. His other books include the Wilderking Trilogy–The Bark of the Bog Owl, The Secret of the Swamp King, and The Way of the Wilderking–as well as The World According to Narnia and a biography of Saint Patrick. He has spent most of his adult life in Nashville, Tennessee, where he and his wife Lou Alice are raising a houseful of robustious children.