Pack Up Your Troubles

By Wes Russell

April 26, 2019

“Pack up your troubles in an old kit bag and smile, smile, smile”…so advises one of the most well-known songs in western history. Written in 1915 by brothers George and Felix Powell, it became the heart-lifting theme song of the soldiers and citizenry of the allied forces during the First World War.

Those of us raised in Christian churches have often been admonished by pastors and others to, when we enter the church, drop all of our problems at the door, so as to be able to worship God with an unfettered heart, at least for the few minutes (or hours, if you went to a church like mine!) we were there.

While I’m sure those leaders meant well, it never felt safe, nor realistically possible, to leave my problems at the door. It felt unsafe because who might pick them up and find out about all my hidden sins? Of course, that wasn’t really a possibility, since I never felt able to really leave my problems at the door. They were just too huge and just too many to forget about. So I carried the double shame of not being able to do this, as apparently all the other good Christians around me could, and then the added shame of the shameful act of lying by acting like I had left them there, when I hadn’t. I was supposed to pack up my troubles and smile, smile, smile—presenting that façade of holy happiness.

Several years ago, my therapist introduced me to a much better, and actually doable, place to put my issues. She allowed me to acknowledge that there was no way I was going to be able to deal with all my stuff at once. That alone was freeing. Then she asked me to imagine a container in which I could place all that stuff. In that container Jesus would hold everything and safeguard it all. Nothing would be laying in the hall “dropped at the door.”

At first I imagined a little Plexiglas three by five card box, which happened to be on her table there in the room. I quickly realized that wasn’t really “mine” and it also would be nowhere near big enough! So I went back to the drawing board and this time I imagined a school locker, which made sense because I’ve been a high school teacher since 1983. It was one of those narrow, tall lockers with louvers at the top and bottom, and a built-in combination lock. At the start of each of our sessions, my therapist would lead me as I’d imagine writing my junk on scraps of paper, and slipping them in through the top slots. What was especially cool about this image is that only Jesus knew the combination to the lock, so I could totally trust him to keep my secrets safe, and no one but him would pull things out for us to work on.

My locker has been such a blessing to me, that I invite folks in every group I lead, as well as individuals I counsel for any period of time, to create their own container. Many of them have described similar blessings of having a tangible, safe place for Jesus to hold their stuff until just the right moment.

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As an epilogue…later I remembered that in junior high I had a unique way of keeping all my returned homework, tests,

and the like. I found that an old clipboard was just the right width to bridge the distance behind the inside edges at the bottom of my locker. I placed all my papers in there and, as that space filled, I’d stomp the papers down…an early, human-powered trash compactor!

Much later, after nearly two years of therapy, as I kept shoving more and more paper in the top slot of my imagined locker, I got scared about how much trash was getting stomped down in the bottom, and what would happen if Jesus ever decided to open the locker? I’d surely be crushed under an avalanche of stored and ignored problems!

So one day I confessed this fear to my therapist who, as always, asked me if I’d talked with Jesus about it. And, as usual, of course I hadn’t. So we went to Safe Place and I asked Jesus about this. He said, “Watch this!” He spun the dial and flung open the door. The locker was pretty much empty. Throughout those years, while I’d been shoving stuff wholesale into the top slots, Jesus had been secretly slipping things out the bottom slot, and helping me deal with them, one at a time, until now there was just a small, neatly-organized stack of papers there at the bottom of the locker. Oh…and no old clipboard!

So, whether it’s a school locker or a hollow stump in the woods or a toy box you had as a kid or even an old kit bag, I encourage you to spend time with Jesus creating a place for him to hold every thing until just the right time to deal with each thing. And maybe, just maybe, you’ll find that that box is helping you to smile.

Wes Russell is the happy dad of three adult children and “Pop” to his six grandkids. He is a Caregiver and Group Leader with the Transformational Healing Ministry at Heritage Christian Church, Columbus, Ohio.


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