A Shrink Gets Stretched
It was surreal enough that a white-haired man would walk up to me at the crowded Michelle's—ice-cream lovers' cloud nine in Colorado Springs—get on one knee, look me in the eyes, and croon "Are You Lonesome Tonight?"
The Elvis impersonator was not a waiter desperate for a tip.
He was none other than Larry Crabb, the popular Christian counselor whose books have sold in the millions. The author of Finding God (Zondervan, 1993), which left me in tears of repentance. The evangelical mystic, who—in the words of one of his best friends, Trip Moore—has the gift "to remain miserable in the midst of blessings." The distinguished scholar in residence at Colorado Christian University.
As Crabb proceeded with his confident, testosterone-oozing, faithful Elvis impersonation—complete with swiveling hips—you'd think his personality just split. Later I learn that I'm one of his many victims: doing Elvis "to" people is a prank he plays on his colleagues, students, and even Christian cruise passengers.
Why would he do that? Brennan Manning, Catholic retreat director and author of The Wisdom of Tenderness (HarperCollins, 2002), who has been giving Crabb occasional spiritual direction for the last 14 years, offers a plausible reason: "Maybe he does it to disarm."
Crabb's interest in the "tragic artistry" of Elvis began in childhood. He'd stand for hours by the hi-fi and sing along with the King. "When I hear him, particularly in the spirituals, it feels like something wistful is coming out, something yearning, something longing," he says.
Crabb looks at everyone with this kind of wonder. Beneath behavior he sees wounds. Beneath wounds he sees depravity. Beneath depravity he sees the gloriously volatile imago dei.
When he was only 6, Crabb watched his dad play doubles on a tennis court. As his father was cracking jokes relentlessly, the future author of Inside Out was studying more than the game. Dad, why are you so insecure? Crabb remembers thinking. Why don't you just play tennis? Why are you trying so hard to be one of "the guys"? 'Cause you didn't have a father?
Crabb was having dinner recently at the home of his friend Bob Ingram. The friend began to convulse in a cough—he's struggled with its sudden attacks for years—and bolted from the table. When Ingram returned from the bathroom, Crabb asked, "Have you ever considered what effect your cough has on your spiritual journey?"
"That moment, I was really angry at him," Ingram told me. "I was having a hard time breathing. But later it caused me to be drawn to him. I want to know more about where his curiosity will lead me in my walk to something I think is a higher ground."
Crabb's chronic fascination with the unseen forces at work in people not only prompted him to earn a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, but also eventually drove him into spiritual direction—deeper yet into the human soul. He turned his back on diagnostic counseling methods in order to care for people's souls in an unpredictable, unprofessional, fickle, and, in his opinion, most useful context: caring relationships. He now believes that there's no better psychotherapy than friendships fashioned after the everlasting friendship between Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Which brings us to Michelle's. It's a midweek ice-cream break for the 30 students taking Crabb's weeklong course in spiritual direction. We've come to the manicured wilderness of the Glen Eyrie retreat center in the Springs to learn to "listen to the Spirit on behalf of one another."