By Norris Burkes Feb 21, 2016
Last week, I wrote about being rebuked by grieving parents who felt that I used a Bible verse to minimize the loss of their two sons. Their abrupt reproach of my youthful religiosity in 1993 led me to conclude, “I didn’t know a damn thing about grief.”
While most readers appreciated my candor, a South Carolina caller expressed shock at hearing “a man of God use that kind of language.”
I’ll admit I wanted to give her my best Rhett Butler’s impression of “Frankly my dear…” but she was simply expressing a tendency that most of us have to give advice where it’s not sought.
It’s the same tendency I was struggling with one afternoon in 1993 when a nurse in the woman’s unit at Houston Northwest Medical center motioned me aside.
She pointed toward a patient room at the end of the hall and suggested, “I think she could use a visit from you.”
Always glad to get a referral, I asked the nurse to tell me more.
“Our patient’s waiting for her tests to come back.”
“Should I wait for the tests before I visit?” I asked.
The nurse pursed her lips and shook her head. “Our patient knows she has cancer, but she doesn’t know how bad it is. She won’t be alive this time next year.”
The nurse was hoping to connect me with the woman so I’d have relevance in her life during her final days.
I walked into the darkened room to find a vibrant young woman who was just then awakening from a nap.
“Are you the doctor?” she asked.
“No. I’m the chaplain,” I said.
“God is good,” she said.
“God is good all the time!” I responded, giving the expected choral rejoinder.
For a few minutes, we exchanged more expressions of faith, but soon she admitted her disappointment. “I was hoping you were the doctor bringing my test results.”
“I understand,” I told her. “Waiting is hard.”
She nodded in agreement while wiping the trace of a tear.
For the next few moments, I listened as she told the story of her sudden cancer diagnosis. “I know things are going to be all right. I know God will heal me.”
“Tell me why you think that is?” I gently asked.
“Well,” she said, studying my hospital ID for my qualification to question God. “You got to have faith, right?”
I must have responded with some kind of “yes-but” answer because she started pleading.
“I have so much yet to do,” she added.
“What if you get bad news?” I pressed.
“Like what?” she asked.
I paused. She knew what I meant.
“You need to leave,” she commanded.
“Leave!” she demanded. “I thought chaplains were supposed to cheer people up, not bring them down.”
She was right – not about chaplains cheering people up – but about dismissing me.
She’d rejected me with her best impression of the Rhett Butler attitude. I’d tried to write myself into her spiritual script without first earning the right to be relevant.
It’s easy to make declarations on people, pronouncing what they should do, predicting where or why they will fail. However, as I learned that day, our knowledge doesn’t always entitle us to tell them. If we hope to have any consequence in the lives of those we love, we must step only where invited. Otherwise, they will surely never “give a damn.”
– Write Norris at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 247, Elk Grove, CA 95759. Twitter @chaplain, or call 843-608-9715. Norris Burkes will be coming to Florida during the first ten days in March. During those weekends, he is available for public speeches, church retreats, marriage seminars, worship services, university or private high school chapels, in-service for healthcare and hospice, and veterans’ events. If you would like to host Norris at your event, please email email@example.com.