Jan 22, 2023

This month, I’m exchanging my hospice chaplain badge for a California pulpit at the Community Church of Nevada City.

At 65 years old, I don’t anticipate ever wearing another chaplain badge, so the occasion has me recalling the first day I wore the badge, 32 years ago. The year was 1991, and I was excited to begin a 12-month, on-the-job chaplain training at UC Davis Medical Center called Clinical Pastoral Education.

My supervisor took one look at my badge and curbed my enthusiasm when he said, “I see you’ve attached a Christian cross to your badge.”

“Yes,” I said proudly. “This is the Protestant cross I wear on my Air Force Reserve uniform.”

“You’ll need to remove it,” he said of the half-inch silver accouterment.

When I tried to explain that the symbol would better communicate my chaplain identity to patients, he asked, “What if the patient isn’t a Christian? What if they are atheist, Wiccan or Rastafarian?”

I hadn’t thought of that. Nor had I a clue as to what those last two things were.

Still, I pushed back. I contended that hospital employees were permitted to attach sentimental pins to their badges. I argued that his order of political correctness came at the expense of my Christian rights.

“OK,” he said. “Leave it on for now and we’ll see how it goes.”

It didn’t take long to “see.”

A few weeks later, I walked into the room of an 80-year-old patient. I had said only my name when he noticed the cross on my badge.

“Get out!” he ordered. “I’m an atheist. I don’t need a chaplain!”

Suddenly, I got the supervisor’s drift. I was being dismissed with no opportunity to explain the man behind the cross. No occasion was given to me to be human. The patient had judged me solely on the basis of my shiny cross.

I stood my ground while unclipping my badge and slipping it into my shirt pocket.

The man’s face wrinkled with suspicion followed by a thin smile. In the briefest of words, I asked him for a do-over.

“What if we get rid of the chaplain?” I asked. “I’ll just be Norris.”

He paused, just long enough for me to interject, “I see you’re hurting today. Can I stay a few minutes to hear what’s going on with you?”

The man glanced at the pocket where I’d disposed of my parochial identity and offered a softening face to me.

“Sure, OK,” he said tentatively. He pointed to the guest chair where I would sit visiting with him for the next half hour.

What was it that won the man over?

I hope it was my willingness to see from his point of view and remove the obstacles between us. The sentiment is best expressed in the paraphrased words of the Apostle Paul in “The Message” version of the Bible:

“Even though I am free of the demands and expectations of everyone, I have voluntarily become a servant to any and all in order to reach a wide range of people: religious, nonreligious, meticulous moralists, loose-living immoralists, the defeated, the demoralized — whoever.”

Yet, Paul adds, “I didn’t take on their way of life. I kept my bearings in Christ — but I entered their world and tried to experience things from their point of view” (1 Corinthians 9:19).

If the Apostle Paul were living today, I can’t say he’d have worn a badge like mine. But I do suspect that, like me, he’d be willing to strip down to his boxers for an opportunity to share faith, forgiveness and comfort with hurting people.

The patient invited me back for two more visits — without me having to strip to boxers.

Too bad. That would have made a really good column.

No worries, though. I’m sure I’ll find some good column material in the local church. My parishioners seem excited to have me, although a bit concerned about the boxer reference.


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