High achiever's sufficiency 'was taken away in a moment'

by Karen L. Willoughby, posted Friday, June 08, 2001 (17 years ago)

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (BP)--It's boring to achieve the pinnacle of success and have no more heights to climb.

It's also frightening.

"I had to cling to the walls just to walk down the hallways," said John Tatterson, who was highly respected as a dentist and a businessman before he walked away from it all and into the arms of God.

He and his wife, Doris, built the practice from three employees to 22 in 25 years. In addition to all the trappings of material success, Tatterson was the envy of his peers for his business acumen.

But success in business was a hollow victory for the man who now is an energized member of the missions committee and co-chairman of the deacons at Riva Trace Baptist Church in Annapolis, Md.

"No matter how much I accomplished, I always strived for a little more," Tatterson said. "It was pride. It was futile."

Tatterson took time to change the rolls of toilet paper at the office and to fluff pillows in the waiting room, but neglected his son and daughter.

"Our children paid the price for our success," Tatterson said. "We were not there. They were latchkey kids after they were 10 and 13."

The family attended church, but Tatterson now confesses he daydreamed about his business during Sunday morning worship, and he never joined in congregational singing.

Then came the staff meeting Dec. 7, 1994, when he suffered what at first was thought to be a heart attack.

"My ability to support myself was taken away in a moment," Tatterson said. "For a person so much in control, this was devastating."

Doctors at Johns Hopkins diagnosed Tatterson with severe clinical depression. Depression is anger turned inward, Tatterson said. Anger at not having any more mountains to climb; anger at not having a sense of fulfillment from the success he'd worked so hard to achieve; anger at his inability to maintain the sense of control that was so important to him.

One morning Tatterson got in his Lincoln, comforted by his sense of control over the high-dollar vehicle, and drove eight hours to his parents' home, where he stayed for 10 days.

A package came in the mail.

"Here, son, I think this is for you," his dad said. In actuality, it was a gift for a donation his parents had made to a ministry, and inside the package was a copy of "The Message" by Eugene Peterson, a translation of the Bible in contemporary language.

"I'd read the Bible before. I had a stack of them this tall," Tatterson said, raising his hand about two feet. "This time, my heart was ready for it. I read it and things began to make sense."

He returned home and for the first time at church listened to the pastor's message.

"I wept," Tatterson said. "I sang a song. I knew something was going on."

That was three months after his collapse.

That summer, during a revival meeting with a guest evangelist, "in a room of 200 people, I was the only one he was talking to," Tatterson said. "When the invitation was given I popped up like a bobbin on the water. I prayed the sinner's prayer and all the pressure I'd been under was relieved," as he accepted forgiveness of sin and invited Christ into his heart.

"I guess we all know what we are inside," Tatterson said. "Deep down I knew I was going through the motions. As I prayed the sinners' prayer I realized not only that my sins were forgiven, but that God loved me. I felt a sense of joy and hope so long absent in my being.

"All those years of trusting in myself, doing good works, and being a moral person melted away," Tatterson said. "It was God's grace that saved me. It was not until my knowledge of Jesus traveled from my head to my heart did I realize what eternal life was really about and that I had received it. I wept with joy."

Tatterson acquired an insatiable appetite for reading the Bible. "The words of Scripture I had read for so many years now became real and insightful," he said. "They pierced my heart."

He read the One-Year Bible in six months. He joined Bible Study Fellowship with a group of men. He said he was also blessed to be in an adult Sunday school class at Riva Trace Baptist, where the teacher brought the Scriptures alive.

Over time, Tatterson became convicted that he had not had a scriptural baptism when he became a Southern Baptist as a new father in 1968. He received believer's baptism on July 30, 2000.

"It was a joyful experience for me, for in the audience I saw tearful and joyful eyes looking back at me," Tatterson said.

One pair of eyes were those of his daughter, now pregnant with her fourth child. Years earlier, Leigh was 14 and excitedly talking with him upon returning from her first mission trip when she determined from his responses that he wasn't a Christian. Another pair of eyes watching Tatterson's believer's baptism was his son's. That formerly stormy relationship also has been healed since dad became a Christian.

Within months of Tatterson's conversion, he was introduced to Evangelism Explosion, an uncomplicated way to lead people to the Lord.

"The Great Commission was ringing in my ears," Tatterson said. "I felt it very important we witness."

While still in Evangelism Explosion training, and never having gone through the entire presentation, Tatterson was given the opportunity to go to Keiv, Ukraine, to train others in what popularly is known as "EE."

His first day there, Tatterson led a woman to the Lord.

"It was the easiest five minutes of my life," Tatterson said. "When we went in her house, she was sitting in the dark -- it was twilight. I watched her eyes and it was like Christmas lights coming on -- from despair to hope to joy."

That woman was the first of 20 or more people Tatterson has led to the Lord in 10 trips to four nations -- Ukraine, China, Cuba and Romania -- in addition to the ones he has led to the Lord in the United States.

"As I have continued in my walk with the Lord, I have found the more obedient I am in serving Christ, the less complicated my life becomes," Tatterson said. "Each time I go someplace the Lord provides an outstanding opportunity to be a witness -- for me to see how the Lord changes lives."

His wife said John Tatterson is an example of the life-giving change the Lord makes in a person's life.

"I thought he was a Christian before," she said. "He certainly looked and acted the part of a Christian. He's a very strong, self-made man, a good man. He's been a man who honored his wife and family. We always tithed. If you could get to heaven because you're a good person, John would have made it.

"But from the day he prayed the sinner's prayer, it's like he had a heart transplant," Doris Tatterson continued. "I've seen how God takes somebody and puts in a new heart. Now there's a spiritual side of him there never was before."

For three years after his breakdown, Tatterson sought the counsel of psychiatrists and the relief promised from a variety of prescription medications -- which gave him side effects without benefits -- to counteract the depression that would come and go like an oppressive fog despite his newfound faith and the hours he spent in Bible reading, the weeks each year he spent on short-term evangelistic mission projects, and the service he gave through his church.

He felt powerless over the symptoms that would wash over him: extreme fatigue, panic attacks, shortness of breath, inability to focus thoughts or make decisions, and more.

On May 14, 1998, he woke in the middle of the night and couldn't go back to sleep. Though he didn't usually do so when he couldn't sleep, on that night he picked up his Bible and started reading the New Testament Book of Acts.

He stopped turning pages when he got to Acts 3, where Peter encountered the cripple and said, "I do not possess silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you: in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene -- walk."

Tatterson takes a deep breath as he recalls the significance of that moment.

"I read that. I read that again," he said. "I read it again, and at that moment my body had a warmth and a lightness it had never had before. I heard a voice in my mind: 'You're healed."

Three hours later he was out cutting his lawn -- the fog was gone; the fatigue was gone; all symptoms of his depression gone; and they haven't returned, except for an inability to practice dentistry. Each time he has tried, the panic attacks return.

"God healed me for his purpose, not mine," Tatterson said. "God has shown me through this that the things I strived for in the past were so unimportant. Dentistry helped me not one bit. What I've learned from my own life and from going overseas is that people who have nothing but the love of Christ, they're rich beyond comprehension."


(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: WORLD WITNESS, NEW HEART and WITNESS IN ROMANIA.

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