By Norris Burkes July 9 2023
In a universe long ago and far, far away, Chaplain Norris flew to Maxwell AFB in Montgomery, Ala., for six weeks of training at the Air Force Chaplain Corps College.
The course was taught by a cadre of padres, seasoned chaplains with years of active-duty experience. Our syllabus included military customs and courtesy, problem solving, liturgy and the principles of counseling.
It was during the counseling block that our teachers introduced a lesson that left a lasting impression.
The instructors divided us into five groups with five chaplains per group. We were secluded in separate spaces and given a script proposing a possible counseling scenario.
Each group leader read the what-would-you-do exercise aloud.
“A couple comes to you saying they’ve been having problems for years. They fight constantly. Now she wants a divorce. What do you tell them?”
After a thirty-minute discussion, our groups returned to the main classroom to voice our learned recommendations.
The first group could only protest that they didn’t have enough facts. “Why in the world does she want a divorce?”
The second bunch readily declared how the Bible forbids divorce.
The third group claimed divorce was certainly justified and the wife should consider filing charges against her husband for what he did.
How could a gaggle of mostly protestant evangelical, white males, give such conflicting responses for the same scenario?
When the fourth group said the woman should seek inpatient psychiatric care, our chappy-sense told us that we’d been had.
The instructors, sporting know-it-all grins, brought the exercise to a halt before the fifth group could speak. They revealed how we all began with the same basic situation, but each group processed an extra added detail.
For instance, the first team worked with only the basic facts. The second squad was told that the couple came seeking only Biblical feedback.
The third group believed that the husband constantly abused his wife. And the fourth cluster heard that the woman was constantly threatening to harm herself.
Hence, we all gave different answers for what was seemingly the same problem.
The exercise pointed out several pitfalls in how we go about trying to help others with their problems.
The exercise was meant to discourage us from making snap judgments. The facts are one thing, but the counselee’s feelings may tell a different story.
The instructors suggested more potential scenarios that may be much more than what first appears. Perhaps a sergeant who wants to discuss a work problem may want to talk about his affair with a subordinate.
An officer complaining about her money problems may be trying to confess a gambling addiction.
“You can’t deal with folks as if you’re doing a multiple-choice test,” said one of the instructors. “Don’t just pick the first option that sounds good.”
“Helping people is much more like a fill-in-the-blank test.” She added, “Help them fill in the blanks or we all get it wrong.”
Their message that day put me in mind of Mary Lathrap, a Methodist preacher, temperance reformer.
You may not recognize the name, but chances are nearly certain you know a line from her poem Judge Softly published in 1895.
Though you likely know it by its more famous revised name, “Walk a Mile in His Moccasins.”
The last stanza concludes:
“Remember to walk a mile in his moccasins
And remember the lessons of humanity taught to you by your elders.
We will be known forever by the tracks we leave
In other people’s lives, our kindnesses and generosity.
Take the time to walk a mile in his moccasins.”
And like they taught me in Chaplain school, “Three points and a poem and the sermon is over.”
Until next week. Chappy out.
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