Since leaving my job as a pediatric chaplain 30 months ago, people ask me whether I’m still doing chaplain work.
Recently, I responded to that question with a story of my visit to a local pharmacy.
“You have some bruises on your arm,” I told the young female clerk.
“Yes,” she said, as nonchalantly as if she’d answered a question about a sale item.
I paused to allow silence to speak for me.
“Oh. It’s OK. I’m fine,” she said.
After a few hesitant steps toward the exit, I made a thoughtful turn in her direction.
“You know why I’m asking?” I said.
She shook her head with the hesitancy one makes when lying.
“Those bruises look like fingerprints. Is someone hurting you?” I asked flatly.
She returned a silent stare. “I’m fine,” she said without answering my question.
“OK,” I said, knowing I’d been dismissed.
On my drive home, I started one of those debates you see in cartoons with the devil on one shoulder and angel on the other.
“She said she was fine,” said the devil. “Now wash your hands of it.”
“She could be your daughter,” said the angel. “You’ve got to rescue her.”
You’d think a chaplain could easily dismiss the devil and obey the angel.
Well, not entirely. I’ve learned these debates aren’t as black and white as we’d like to make them. Usually, the answer is somewhere in the middle.
It wasn’t until I’d been home for an hour that it suddenly hit me.
Middle! That was it.
I’d left the woman no middle ground. I’d failed to give her a future option. She said “no,” but I shouldn’t have let her answer mean “never.”
I returned to the pharmacy to have another talk with the girl. It was too late. Her shift was over and she’d gone home.
There’s only one thing a chaplain can do when he reaches the end of his abilities: refer.
Without disclosing too much of my conversation, I referred my concerns and my contact information with the clerk’s manager.
I’d learned two things that day.
Sometimes, you get to be the first responder and save a life. Those are good times. You get the feel-good fuzzies because you were the star hitter and you knocked one out of the park.
But most of the time, you have to be a team player and follow God’s coaching. This means you have to recognize that you aren’t the savior of the world who can solve all the problems.
While you’re on God’s team to hit the occasional home run, most of the time you’re here to field the ball to a teammate who’ll get credit for the play.
That day, I fielded the ball to the manager. If there’s a play to make, she’ll get to make it.
So when people ask me whether I’m still doing chaplain’s work, I tell them that chaplain’s work is caring for people. It’s the same kind of work I hope we all do.
Just because I don’t carry the title into a hospital anymore doesn’t mean that I’m not responsible to God to care for people.
The Apostle Paul had much the same idea when he wrote the church in Corinth telling them that he and his teammate Apollos were “merely servants who helped you to have faith. It was the Lord who made it all happen. I planted the seeds, Apollos watered them, but God made them sprout and grow. What matters isn’t those who planted or watered, but God who made the plants grow.”
Burkes is a former civilian hospital chaplain and an Air National Guard chaplain. Write firstname.lastname@example.org or visit thechaplain.net. You also can follow him on Twitter, username is “chaplain,” or on Facebook at facebook.com/norrisburkes.