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Faith, Media & Culture

Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.

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“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” – Matthew 11:28-30 (NIV)

“Come as you are!” That’ the inviting message Sheila Walsh has for tentative Christians who she suggests are sometimes so concerned about  meeting what we fear are God‘s strict standards that we fail to understand that He already accepts us just as we are.

Walsh isn’t just reciting from a preacher’s notebook when she addresses her audience. She’s exposing deep wounds that she spent years hiding — even, perhaps especially, during the five years she spent in the late eighties and early nineties as Pat Robertson‘s co-host on the perennial Christian talk show The 700 Club.

Today, Scottish-born the singer/songwriter/author uses those very wounds as an entry point to touch the lives of others with a healing message about God’s non-judgmental and eternal love. It’s a message that personally resonates with me.

I recently had the opportunity to talk with Sheila Walsh about her personal journey which, from a very young age, involved enormous heartache. I think it’s safe to say she didn’t hold anything back. But read on. There is a happy ending.

JWK: At a recent Mastermedia event I attended in New York City, you told a very gripping and moving story about your childhood. Can you share that with
Beliefnet readers?

SHEILA WALSH: Sure. I was raised in a Christian family in Scotland which, obviously, would not by unusual in America — but in Scotland, where less than two percent of our population goes to church, to have a mom and dad who not only went to church but really loved Jesus was just really a gift…(I) had an older sister, Frances,  and we just had a baby brother Stephen and everything looked kind of perfect but, like many of your readers will know, life can shift in a single moment. You think everything is just going perfectly and then something completely unexpected changes everything.

We went to bed one night and everything was normal. By the morning nothing would be normal again. During the night, my father had had a massive brain aneurism and was in intensive care and not expected to live through the day. But he did and eventually he was able to come home. My mother explained as best she could to children that, although he was my dad, he was a little different. He was now paralyzed on the left side and he could no longer speak. But I didn’t really care. I just knew that my dad was coming home. I was very much a daddy’s girl and I couldn’t wait to have him in our house again.

But, after he had been home for two or three weeks, the blood clot in my father’s brain moved and began to press on an area that affected his personality. And, from being a very loving, warm, funny dad, my father became a very confusing, angry and, ultimately, violent stranger. Initially, he only took his anger out on me which was very hard for me, as a child, to understand because I had been the one who was closest to my dad. But he never hit my sister and he never hit my baby brother. And, until the very last day, he never did anything to my mom.

It’s only recently that I’ve begun to understand  — through a friend of mine who is a neurosurgeon– that sometimes when there is brain injury the person instinctively hits out at the one person they believe will still love them no matter what. But, as a child, it was just confusing to me.

It started in little ways. He would spit in my face or he would pull a chunk of my hair out. The very last time I ever saw my father alive I was sitting by the fire with my little dog and I suddenly heard Heidi growl.  I never heard this little dog growl before. I turned and, in that moment, I saw that my father was behind me with his cane over my head. He was about to bring his cane down on my skull. I don’t know whether I pulled it from him or I pushed him but, whatever happened, he fell on the floor and just laid there roaring like an animal. My mom had been in the kitchen and came in. When she saw what was happening she took my brother and sister and I and she locked us in a room while she dialed — it would be 999 in Scotland (the equivalent of 911 in the US). Even in those few moments, while we were waiting for help to come, I could hear my dad attacking my mom and banging her head off one wall and off the other wall. I really thought he was going to kill her but, eventually, I’m sure it was only a few moments — you know, three or four minutes — help arrived. It took three or four men to carry my dad out of the house that day. When he would (have those) “brainstorms” be became incredibly strong.

He was taken off to what was called our “local asylum” — a hospital outside our town. He was only 34 years old. He was placed in the maximum security unit because he had become violent. That really grieved my mother because he was the only young man in that unit. The rest were men in the 70’s and 80’s who had completely lost touch with reality. So, she asked my dad’s doctor if there was any possibility that my father could be moved to a ward where there was some younger men. The doctor agreed to that but it meant that it was a less secure ward. And so my father escaped from the hospital. They searched for him all during the night and found him in the morning. He was dead in the river behind the hospital, caught in the salmon nets.

In those days you didn’t take children to funerals. You didn’t take them to a grave site. All I remember was my mom one day in a black dress with a black hat on. She took all the photos of my father off the wall and put them in a suitcase under her bed and we never talked about him again.

I really don’t blame my mom for that. I think we know so much more now about how to handle grief but I think she thought Sheila had been through enough and if she wants to talk she will. But my mother had no way of know the conversation that was going on inside my head of wondering what it was they my father saw in me that made this man who used to love me so much seem to hate me. That was a question that haunted me for years.

JWK: Did you and your mother ever speak about it?

SW: Actually, it was interesting. It was only when my own life fell apart and I too was admitted to a psychiatric hospital — also when I was 34 years old — that my mom actually flew over from Scotland because she wanted to be there for me when I got out but my therapist in the hospital said “Why don’t you invite your mom into a couple of sessions.” And so she came in.

It’s a really interesting thing because I had spent so much of my life from that point onward trying to protect my mom and protect my brother and sister because I felt as if I had ruined their lives by taking my mom’s husband and sister and brother’s father away but by the time I ended up in the hospital I was too tired to care anymore. I remember asking her in the session “Mom, why did you blame me for my dad’s death?” And I remember hearing this strange noise — almost like a whining — and I realized it was coming from my mom. What I did not know until that day was that she had spent all those years blaming herself — thinking that it was her fault that my dad had stayed in the house too long. It was a very, very painful but really healing for my mom and I to be able to finally talk about it all and realize that really neither of us did anything wrong. My father was just sick and there was nothing we could have done about that.

JWK: How did you make the trip to America from Scotland?

SW: I went to seminary in London. I went to London Theological Seminary to do my degree, intending to go off as a missionary to India but God kind of redirected my steps and I ended up working with Youth for Christ in a musical group. The guy who was my boss in Youth for Christ — a guy called Graham Kendrick who is a great worship song writer in the United Kingdom. He eventually put a band together for me because, he said, “I really feel like God has given you a gift to communicate through music.” And so I was signed to do my very first record and Billy Ray Hearn who was, at that point, the head of Sparrow Records was over in London and heard me sing and asked me if I would like to open for one of his artists — a guy called Phil Keaggy,  a phenomenal guitar player. And so that was my very first tour in America. I opened for Phil Keaggy. I think we did like 60 cities.

JWK: Did that lead to The 700 Club?

SW: Yeah, I was working as a contemporary Christian artist and I worked a lot with Dr. Billy Graham and Dr. Graham’s crusades. We were actually up in Canada on a television program there (called) 100 Huntley Street and someone from The 700 Club saw me on the show and took the video to Pat Robertson and said “What do you think of this girl?” Pat was looking for a new co-host. So, when I got back from being on that trip to my apartment in Los Angeles there was a message saying “Would you fly into The 700 Club for three days next week and co-host with Pat Robertson?”  I had never seen the show before because we didn’t really have Christian TV in the United Kingdom. I had to completely get a new wardrobe to be able to do that because I was use to wearing leather pants on stage. It was clear to me that that would not work on The 700 Club.

JWK: How long did you end up co-hosting the show?

SW: Five years.

JWK: Did you and Pat have a good working relationship?

SW: We actually had an amazing relationship. I found Pat to be really like a father to me. In fact, one of the things that really touched me was when my life began to really unravel. Even though I had all sorts of wonderful opportunities and now I was on a show that was broadcast to however many people happened to be tuning in on any given day, inside I was still that scared little girl who wondered what her father saw. That’s why I lived a very solitary life. I thought if I let anybody get too close to me they’ll see whatever it was my dad saw. So, when I eventually — in just one morning, after five years there — I just fell apart.

I was actually asking a guest a question and, instead of answering my first question, she just very kindly turned to me and said “You know, Sheila, you ask guests all the time how we’re doing. How are you doing?” She meant it just really innocently and I didn’t see it coming and I didn’t have time to put up my guard and I did something I hadn’t done in a long, long time. I started to cry and I couldn’t stop. It was that day that I thought it’s finally over. My life is really over. And I remember locking myself in my dressing room until the evening and calling a friend of mine — a guy called Dr. Henry Cloud. I said “Henry, I think I’m losing my mind.” He asked me some questions and he said “No, you’re not, Sheila, but you need some help and you need it straight away.” Henry was the one who arranged for me to be admitted to this psyche ward in Washington. I thought I cannot imagine telling Pat Robertson — who represents this ministry that so much of the ministry is about healing and miracles and here his co-host has fallen off her chair. But, I have to say, the person on The 700 Club who was the kindest to me of all the staff was Pat. He said “You take as long as you need” and he said “If you need to talk to me, call.” He was incredibly kind to me.

JWK: Do you continue to have a good relationship with him to this day?

SW: I do, yeah, I do. We stay in touch. I think he’s just a lovely man.

JWK: How long did it take for you to feel better?

SW: I mean it sounds kind of flippant, John, but I honestly think it’s a lifelong process. I mean initially I was diagnosed with severe clinical depression and post-traumatic stress disorder and put on medication. And, definitely, within two to three weeks I could tell a difference. I didn’t feel such overwhelming darkness and hopelessness. But, basically, I mean I continue to take medication to this day. That’s over 20 years later. And I think I probably will until the Lord returns. I know that God could heal me but, as far as I’m concerned, for those of us who struggle with any kind of mental illness, God has provided help for us. And one of the reasons I like to talk about it sometimes is because there still is so much stigma attached to any kind of mental illness. And I think that’s why so many people just get locked in despair and don’t get the help that’s available and why so many just end up taking their own lives. They just can’t bear the shame and what I want to say to people is that this is not your spiritual life. It’s your brain chemistry.

JWK: And, of course, what you went through as a child would affect anyone’s emotions.

SW: Yeah — particularly because I loved my dad so much and because of his rage. I mean what I remember most wasn’t even the noise of that last day but the look in my father’s eyes — of absolute hatred. And, to me, if the person who loved you the most in the world could end up hating you then anybody could.

JWK: Of course, he didn’t really hate you. It was his brain chemistry that was affecting him in ways that didn’t reflect who he was.

SW: Yeah, absolutely and I understand that now. I just didn’t at the time.

JWK: You’re a songwriter and have written several books. You have a new book coming out called The Storm Inside. What’s the basic message that you hope people take from your writings and your personal journey? What do you hope people gain from hearing your story?

SW: I think that, even though I write on various subjects, the common thread through everything is this fiery, overwhelming love of God that invites us to come just as we are. I think so often we think “Well, I’ll clean my act up and then I’ll come to God.” But what I want people to know is “We are not the Good News. Jesus is. He already knows everything that’s true about our story and loves us completely. So, don’t try and fight it.

Even with my son Christian. He was three years old. He traveled with me from when he was born until he was about eight then, you know, he joined the soccer team and wanted to stay home on weekends. I just took him everywhere with me and at one of the Women of Faith events — when he was maybe three — we had a birthday party backstage for one of the crew and had a big chocolate cake and when everyone else had finished Christian just kind of sunk his face into the frosting and he was covered in it. My mother-in-law was going to take him back to the hotel to get him bathed and into bed. I had said goodnight to him.  I thought he had gone. I was speaking that night and had on a cream suit and they were about to introduce me in a few moments (when) I suddenly heard this little voice behind me saying “Mommy!” I turned around and there was Christian running toward me. He wanted one more hug. So, I knelt down and I held my arms open and I knew what was gonna happen. I knew I was going to get frosting on my suit and on my hair but it was very, very intentional because I’ve tried to say to Christian in a million ways since he was born “You don’t clean yourself up to come to your mom and you don’t clean yourself up to come to your Heavenly Father.” Because I think so many of us feel that if we can just improve ourselves God will love us more. If we could just, you know, stop this (whatever this might be), then God would love us more.  So, we stay in the shadows when I believe that God says “No, don’t clean yourself up! Just Come! Come as you are and I’ll take care of that.”

I think that if we as a church began to really understand the overwhelming magnitude of the love of God, it would radically change how we live.

JWK: Do you feel as though sometimes the Christian church puts out a different message — one not so focused on God’s infinite love?

SW: Oh, yeah, absolutely. For too long we have been defined by what we stand against. I understand that some people feel very strongly on particular issues and want to speak out on that but when I think of the commission that Christ left and when he said to the disciples “Greater things will you do if you believe in Me.” So often, people get confused by that verse. They think “Well, Christ brought Lazarus back from the dead?! He could do these amazing miracles. How could I do greater?” But the word that’s used in the text — in the Greek there — is not the word that’s used for miracles. It’s the word that’s used for the work of Christ — feeding the poor, spreading the Gospel, caring for the oppressed and coming in the name of Christ. I think if we could be known instead as the ones who are always there in a crisis, the ones who always have our doors open when your life’s fallen apart, as opposed to the ones who stand in judgment over others and tell a culture that doesn’t even pretend to love God and (tell that) culture where you’re going wrong, I don’t think that’s our responsibility. I think it’s our responsibility to invite them to come closer to God.

JWK: Do you feel that people of other faiths — people who sincerely believe in God — are offended when Christians seem to presume that they’re going to hell or something? Does that put up walls?

SW: I think that what Christ said in his last conversation with his closest friends — it’s found in John’s Gospel — was “The World will know you’re mine if you love each other” — not if you tell everybody else where they’ve gone wrong. But “if you love each other” then people will want to know who are you and why do you live like this. That is how we’re supposed to be defined– by the way that we love, not the way that we judge.

JWK: How many children do you have?

SW: Just one. We have one son who’s 16.

JWK: Your experiences have obviously shaped how you relate to him as a mother.

SW: Oh, absolutely! I was 40 when I got pregnant. I was 38 when Barry and I got married. I didn’t know if I would be able to have any children. When I realized that we were going to have this son — it’s such a gift — I determined that I would take as many of these little detours as possible.  So there were many nights when I had supper on the table and maybe he had a new kite and, suddenly, the wind got up and he’d be like “Look. mom!” So, we just abandoned dinner and went and flew his kite because, I thought, you don’t get those moments back again. My husband and decided that we wanted to make our house the house where all the kids came and hung out because I know that in a couple of years Christian goes to college. We can replace the furniture but we’ll never get those years back. A couple of weeks ago we had fourteen 16-year-old boys with their sleeping bags camping out and I loved that. I want them to feel that they can come here and be themselves.

JWK: May I ask what your husband does for a living?

SW: He’s a vice president at Thomas Nelson Live Events…We have a teenage girls’ tour called Revolve. We have an event next year called Unwrap the Bible which is a Bible-teaching event and then we have Women of Faith. Barry’s the creative director.

JWK: You were on The American Bible Challenge recently.

SW: Yes! So fun!

JWK: So, you had a good time doing that.

SW: I had a blast!  Jeff Foxworthy has got to be the sweetest guy that I’ve ever met! His funny but he is kind. The thing I loved about the show was it was three of us representing Women of Faith and then there three rabbis, there were three nuns. We had a blast hanging with those people! It was so cool!

JWK: I’ve done some stories on that show. I like the fact that people are playing for charities and not for themselves. The game is actually a way of living out the faith.

SW: Absolutely!

JWK: What charity were you playing for?

SW: We were playing for A21 (which is) against human sex trafficking.

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JWK: Did you win some money for them.

SW: Yeah, we won like $27,000 I think.

JWK: The American Bible Challenge is, of course, a positive program. When you look at current television and movies, what else is out there that you find positive?

SW: I’m really encouraged by Mark Burnett and Roma Downey. When they put out The Bible it was really encouraging to me to see the way that our culture responded to it. Whether people necessarily agreed with everything, suddenly The Bible was a talking point again around the water cooler and that was amazing to me. Whether I was out to get my hair done or no matter I was, suddenly people were talking again about it…I just got a chance this past weekend to see a clip. Paramount Pictures is about to put out a multimillion-dollar movie with Russell Crowe and Anthony Hopkins made on the life of Noah. I got to see a sneak peak and its absolutely brilliant.  I think there are some amazing new programs and movies that are coming out that are challenging people perceptions or, at least, having people talking about faith again.

JWK: You have a new book coming out called. Can you tell me about that?

SW: It’s called The Storm Inside: Trade the Chaos of What You Feel for the Truth of Who You Are. It’s truly addressing so many of the things that tear us down — shame and anger and bitterness and disappointment and the things we think define us. So, I wrote a book and a Bible study and then an eight-week DVD series where women can either watch it in their own home or they can do it in a small group in their church or in their neighborhood. It just really sort of bring in all the things that are just underneath the surface to light and saying, you know, “Let’s talk about it.”

Because, you know, it’s so interesting to me…Once I got out of the hospital, Pat Robertson was really kind to me. He said “Do you want to come back on The 700 Club? Do you want to, maybe, be in the background for a while?” I said “No, I really want to go back to seminary.” So, I went back to seminary. So, I went back to do my masters…But, while I was there, a friend of mine asked me if I would speak at a private luncheon at a country club and I said “Absolutely not! Not only do I not want to but I don’t know how to do that!” I had never spoken publicly before. I’ve worked for five years with the BBC in London hosting a live rock/gospel show and then five years with The 700 Club but I had no experience of just public speaking. That terrified me. She said “Sheila, I really need you to do it. I’ve run out of speakers. You’re the bottom of the barrel.” So, I said “Okay, I will do this for you simply because I love you but it will be a nightmare.”

And I remember driving to this private country club in Palm Springs and thinking “What on Earth am I going to say to these women?” Because they were all being driven up in their chauffeur-driven limousines in their little Chanel suits. I looked around and there were like a thousand women who looked so perfect and my opening line to them was “Good afternoon. My name is Sheila and eight weeks ago I was released from a psychiatric hospital” and I just basically told them my story.  But what blew me away was I had been seated right beside one of the most physically-stunning women I’ve ever seen in my life. At the end of my talk I said “That’s kind of it. I’m not in a big hurry. If anyone wants to talk, I’ll be here.” The first person to come up to me was that women. She took off her gold cuffs that she was wearing and showed me where she had slit her wrists. And that’s when I suddenly began to understand, you know, we’re all the same. Some of our masks just look better. And that’s basically the heart of the book.  You know, some of us dress ourselves up better but there’s a storm going on inside and how can we address that?

JWK: What’s next for you?

SW: The only other thing I’ve been working on that I’m really excited about is that I have a series of books for little girls called Gigi, God’s Little Princess.

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SW: It’s such an interesting thing because I wrote it out of an experience I had when I dropped Christian off at kindergarten one morning. A saw a dad dropping his daughter off and it looked like he got her ready that morning because there was one sock up, one sock down and her hair was all over the place. But he looked at this little girl and said “I love you, Princess. Have a good day!” She just beamed and I remember thinking “Gosh, I wish I had that when I was a little girl.” And I left dropping my son off and I went to Starbucks and I borrowed some paper from the girl who worked there and a pen and I wrote the first Gigi book and it’s now the biggest-selling Christian children’s book in America. It’s sold more than four-million copies. So, I’m continuing to do that — to write devotional Bibles for little girls. Because I think if you could get it at five — that you’re loved the way you are, that you don’t have to be a blond-haired blue-eyed whatever but you’re beautiful because God approves you as you are. I feel very passionately about that project.

JWK: I think that’s great. I’ll share something with you now. When I was young kid, my mother used to listen to this guy on the radio at night named Herbert W. Armstrong. He had a very strict and extreme take on The Bible. He would talk about the end of the world and make it sound as though almost nobody alive would measure up to God’s standards. My mother was religious but wasn’t actually a follower of his. He just came on the radio after something else she happened to listen to. She seemed to be able to tune him out. She didn’t intend it but his words, as I was falling asleep at night, really screwed with my head when I was a little kid. I went through periods of  deep depression in my life until, with God’s help and the support and help of loyal and patient family and friends, I finally rejected that voice and accepted and embraced the truth of an infinitely-merciful and loving God.  So I can really relate to what you’re saying. It’s important to put messages about the love and kindness of God  into children’s brains. So, what your message — for children and adults — is important.

SW: Thank you.

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Note: For more information and inspiration on the issue of mental health check out my friend Therese J. Borchard‘s blog.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

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