I’ve had several instructors during my first week as the chaplain attached to the 332 Medical Group here at Joint Base Balad, Iraq. I wasn’t expecting my first lesson, however, to be from a hospital housekeeper.
“Chaplain Burkes,” said Chaplain Assistant Staff Sgt. Terry Mueth as he ushered in a young man of eastern descent, “You have a visitor requesting prayer.”
I recognized our visitor to be one of the Third Country Nationals, who do the kind of labor that most folks don’t like to do, mostly cooking and cleaning.
My chaplain assistant introduced the man as one of the many Christians who come here from India.
“They come in here frequently requesting a blessing,” Mueth explained.
As the man came within a few feet of me, he dropped to his knees. I followed his example.
“No,” he said upon realizing I didn’t yet know his preferred stance for a blessing. He extended both hands and motioned me back to my feet. Then, as if guiding a blind person, he took my hand and laid it upon his head.
At 6-foot-2, I towered over his slight frame. At that height, the air seemed a bit thin and the man’s humility robbed me of the breath I needed to form a sentence.
With an expectant look, he addressed me with broken English, “Blessing, please sir.”
I attempted to kneel again, but he insisted I remain upright.
His request drew me to a common story from the Christian tradition recorded in the New Testament Book of Acts.
Not long after Jesus was crucified his followers Peter and John went to the temple where they saw a beggar. To borrow a hospital expression, the man was a frequent flyer. He set up his begging gig just outside the temple gate every day at 3 p.m.
When the beggar pulled his routine on the Jesus duo, Peter and John could have simply pulled their pockets inside out and replied, “You’re barking up the wrong tree, sir.”
Instead, they said, “We don’t have any silver or gold, but we’re going to give you all of what we possess.”
That’s when an amazing thing happened. Peter prompted the man to his feet and pronounced him healed in the “name of Jesus of Nazareth.”
Together they started skipping and leaping their way down the sidewalk to the Temple entrance. Once inside the Temple, the story narrative describes nothing short of a hallelujah tent revival.
Why? Was it simply because he was healed?
This is the part where some people start arguing about whether this was a real healing or whether it was “intervention therapy,” i.e. Peter confronting a healthy man who was scamming people.
I’d rather see the story as two destitute disciples who decided that they would give all they had to a fellow beggar. I call them fellow beggars, because Peter and John knew a time in their life when they were starving for a spiritual sustenance that could bring relevance.
They found that relevance in walking alongside Jesus, knowing not so much his teachings, but the person.
Now, in my office knelt a humble man who could have asked me for silver and gold, but he was simply asking for a blessing. My religious tradition doesn’t practice the giving of blessings, so the whole event felt awkward in its beginning.
But as he knelt there, I realized he wasn’t asking me to share my traditions or my teachings, he was asking me to share myself. And at the end of the day, that’s the most valuable thing you have to share. Jesus knew that and had phenomenal results.