I’m glad I’m sitting next to a chaplain,” said a fellow passenger after hearing the pilot’s announcement of a possible problem with our landing gear.
On our final approach, when we could see the emergency vehicles racing alongside us, my seatmate added, “I’m hoping you have some pull with the Big Guy upstairs.”
That incident happened in the late ’80s, but it wasn’t the last time my traveling companions identified me as their good luck charm. It happened while patrolling in the aftermath of Katrina, during a bird strike on a military aircraft and also through a very dicey thunderstorm in a 35-year-old single-engine Cessna.
While sometimes charming, I know I’m not a good luck charm. Nevertheless, as I prepared to visit a few chaplain friends last month, I was praying for some of that luck.
My first visit was to a hospice chaplain who serves as comforting angel to the terminally ill. Unfortunately, she’s not exempt from the devilish misery sometimes inflicted on good people.
While on an errand with her daughter, she met a drunken driver in the middle of a Sacramento, Calif., intersection. Her daughter is OK, but the jury still is out on my friend.
After weeks of hospitalization, she’s still unable to speak and rations her weak smiles to one per visitor.
For my second visit, I went to Tucson, Ariz., to see retired Air Force chaplain Jim Young. Suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Jim’s disease is more commonly known for its most famous victim, Yankees first baseman, Lou Gehrig.
It affects about 30,000 people in the United States by attacking the nerve cells that control voluntary muscle movement. Patients in the later stages of the disease keep their mental facilities, but often are paralyzed and die within five years of diagnosis.
If evil could customize a disease for my friend, it would be ALS. Jim’s an articulate man with the voice of a PBS radio broadcaster. But ALS stole his swallowing ability, slurred his speech and took away one of his biggest joys, eating.
“It’s a series of losses,” he said as I poured liquid nutrients into his stomach through his feeding tube. “You don’t know what will be next.”
While Jim’s disease left us both wondering what happened to clergy luck, the sense of entitled protection is not limited to clergy. In the hospital patients I saw as a chaplain, I found the feeling common among good church people.
It’s not a false or off-putting piousness, but rather a subconscious belief that says: “God and I are on the same team, and I ought to be shielded from worldly dangers.”
It’s as though we expect a believer exemption on calamity.
It’s much the same thought expressed by the older son in Jesus’ famous parable of the Prodigal Son. The older brother became enraged with his father for planning a welcome home party for his younger son, who had previously disowned his family and squandered his inheritance.
The rage expressed by the older son has been called the ugly side of being good. It’s our expression of discontent that we weren’t blessed for our faithful service. It’s an unjust anger over good things happening to bad people.
The hard truth is that people of faith are granted no more riches or inflicted with any fewer tragedies, temptations or infirmities than are those without faith.
Jesus asserted that God causes the “the sun to warm and the rain to nourish — to everyone, regardless,” meaning the passengers on my plane with the faulty landing gear were facing the same possible fate, no matter what their faith or lack of it.
Our landing was uneventful that day. But it reminded me that at the end of the day, it’s really not how many calamities we avoid that demonstrates our faith, it’s how well we fly through the calamities to manage a peaceful landing.
Burkes is a former civilian hospital chaplain and an Air National Guard chaplain. Write firstname.lastname@example.org or visit thechaplain.net. You also cab follow him on Twitter, username is “chaplain,” or on Facebook at facebook.com/norrisburkes.