For weeks now, National Town Meeting has been promising us Ruth Carter Stapleton, the envangelist and the sister of President Jimmy Carter, but I knew something was amiss when National Public Radio droned on with blub-blub recorded music three minutes after the program was supposed to start.

But me worry? Hardly. I expect technical ineptitude in all cultural broadcasting, whether it's WGMS with cracked records or lunkheads yapping hour by hour on WETA-TV to puh-lease send them a dime for the love of God or they'll just die and do other good things,.

So I didn't worry at the three-minute-late start, and in God's good time I heard the thin whining voice I correctly judged to be that of a cultural events moderator, and the great show began, on the topic of popular psychologies: the positive thinkers. Never mind what that means. Next, you'll be expecting to know what's going on, and it's an important function of broadcasting to see that you don't.

"I didn't hear anybody say why Mrs. Stapleton didn't appear, or even that she was not going to appear," I said later to the producer of Town Meeting, Nancy Dutton.

"We told the audience sitting in the Kennedy Center, but we didn't announce it on the radio because we didn't want the program to begin with a lot of groans from the audience."

"There were groans from the audience that Mrs. Stapleton didn't appear?"

"Oh, yes," said Dutton. "We still don't know exactly what the trouble was. We'd asked Stapleton to take part in a show in June, and she couldn't, so another time was suggested. We confirmed this date in a letter to her July 8, and she cashed the check, so we thought we were all set, especially since she's been on National Town Meeting before and knows how it works.

"We asked her secretary by phone if we should arrange hotel reservations but were told not to, since she'd be staying at the White House."

Meanwhile, at Mrs. Stapleton's evangelistic headquarters down in Texas, her personal secretary, Patsy Clark, came on the telephone:

"I am in such turmoil," she said, crushed. "Everything here is in such turmoil and confusion. Mrs. Stapleton doesn't yet know she was supposed to be on National Town Meeting. Was there a reaction in Washington?"

"Well," I said, "people did notice she wasn't on the program."

"Oh, dear," said the personal secretary. "They did write, you know, and ask her to be on earlier, but by the time we confirmed the date they said they had something else scheduled, and asked if we could suggest a later date. So we talked about it on the phone, but I never got a letter confirming the second date. I've been on vacation, and I guess somebody thought it was all settled and said nothing if they got a follow-up letter. We get 125 requests a week for Mrs. Stapleton to appear. Mrs. Stapleton okayed the Town Meeting appearance and left it to the staff to complete the details. I put it on the clanedar and -- "

What this splendid secretary was really saying, if I am any judge of such things and I think I am, was whether I thought Mrs. Stapleton would kill her.

"For gosh sake, it's not the world," I cried, being awfully good at explaining to other people that their crises are trifling. I did ask a secretary here to check later to see if poor Patsy Clark was killed but have heard nothing. Probably put it on a calendar and forgot it.

Secretaries account for two-thirds of the useful work of the world. They also account for two-thirds of misery. God knows I keep my own griefs to myself, but you would not believe the hours I have spent going to incorrect addresses, showing up on wrong days or wrong hours, thanks to secretaries. They put stuff down on calendars, all right, and makes lots of phone calls (only 73 percent of them to boyfriends) and get heels put on their shoes and pick up the dog's wicker basket and in general stay very busy. But of course they do forget to tell the person involved that the meeting is Thursday.

"Oh, dear. Surely you knew that?" they say.

Except for investigative reporting, nobody would know why Ruth Stapleton wasn't on Town Meeting. Lord knows, I have always been the Secretary's Friend and will yet defend her right to bop out to a sale of gumdrops in Gaithersburg, but truth, Truth, impels the reflection that sometimes a secretary errs and the world collapses.

The program -- you still don't know what popular psychologies: the positive thinkers means -- boiled down to this, with the remaining panelists minus Stapleton:

Evangelical air-wave-type spellbinders and political-action mora zub-zub groups are no ornament to the republic when they try to force their notions down everybody else's throat. The comments by Gary Wills and Donald Meyer, columnist and professor, were elegantly and clearly put.

It's true, of course, that the strong like to pounce on the weak, and the favorite target of the rich is the poor. As one of our learned congressmen said not long ago, money talks, and Shakespeare used to enjoy annoying people by saying a little velvet covers all.

Now when I myself made a snide remark about secretaries, it's only in the interest of Truth, but other people, I cannot help noticing, have baser motives when they attack the po'.

Ms. Dutton, the producer, was upset that the evangelical cause, so to speak, was not represented on the program because of Stapleton's absence. The learned, or at least sophisticated, men on the panel probably shared the general good sense of the nation, that the evangelical types are largely insane, a fairly unarguable judgement.

This may be the place to question where all the right-thinking people who now perceive the danger of prayer in schools were at the time that poor woman was left largely alone in her campaign to have it abolished. The way it works is, you tear Madalyn Murray O'Hair to pieces, as far as the traffic will bear, while she's bearing the brunt of battle, and once she has won, you say her position was, of course, the only right one.

Religion is so personal -- like language -- that restraint is called for. Nobody has ever bought my sensible suggestion that prejudice is all right, but should be distributed more evenly so it does no ultimate damage. I have often suggested Mondays to despise the Baptists, Tuesdays to sneer at the Presbyterians and so on through the month, but the world has not yet seen the wisdom of it.

Priests or preachers or whatever the hell you wish to call them are physicians, as you might say, of the soul. Of course some people don't have souls and don't want physicians for ailing ones, but all the same you have to remember the religion of an illiterate is not going to take the same form as the religion of a president. Make that queen of England.

I detected a condescension in the discussion to the "born-again," which I believe is now the code word for ignorant yokels. There is no Christian church, however, that does not insist on"born again," whether Roman or Anglican or Baptist. And surely there is nothing wrong with an evangelical fellow's desire to rise to new sensitivity, new consciousness, a new awareness of horizons?

It's just that "born again" has been bellowed by so many unsophisticates that is now used as a class distinction.

There was once a wit, never charged with yokelism, who was sicker than hell and called in a physician and for a time fidgeted overmuch with his own misery and ailments.

But as it happened he was also a great man, a notable shepherd of sheep, and the thing about true shepherds is that once they get through wallowing a reasonable amount in their own woes, they start thinking of others. The true test of a great doctor, I have always thought, is how intense his concentration is on his patient, not on himself and his own skills; and the great thing about shepherds, undoubtedly, is that they don't go around losing sheep.

Anyway, this great wit, at a height of his sickness, suddenly thought of other guys that were sick, too, though in different (and needless to say worse) style:

Shouldn't I start thinking (he asked himself) to condole and commiserate their distress who have no physician at all?

How many are sicker perchance than I and laid in their woeful straw at home, if that corner be a home, and have no more hope of help though they die than of preferment though they live?

Nor do no more expect to see a physician then, than to be an officer after? Of whom the first that takes knowledge is the sexton that buries them in oblivion too?

For they do but fill up the number of the dead in the bill, but we shall never hear their names, till we read them in the book of life with our own.

And so on. If there were physicians for those "laid in their woeful straw" we'd think it was a step forward for society, even if it wasn't the king's doctor that tended them. Or to put it another way, a shepherd doesn't necessarily have to wear the right kind of necktie.