By Norris Burkes. Sept 25 2022

If you can imagine how frustrated a preacher would have to be to swear a blue streak, then you might understand the old expression, “It’s enough to make a preacher cuss.”

I grew up in a Baptist church, so it’s safe to say that I’d never heard a preacher cuss. But that all changed when I began my Air Force chaplain’s career at Mather Air Force Base in Sacramento, California.

The base is now closed, but I spent three years there as a 1st Lieutenant under the mentoring of five active-duty chaplains.

While each chaplain enjoyed a well-apportioned office, the biggest office was occupied by our senior chaplain. We called him “Father Z.”

At the time, I was only a reservist working a few days each month. My “office” was comprised of a few chairs surrounded by a five-foot fabric cubical – all under the watchful eye of Father Z.

One day, Father Z scheduled me to counsel a young Air Force couple who wanted to be married in our chapel. The potential groom was a timid airman, a clerk from the military personnel section. His fiancée was a 19-year-old civilian, still unsure of what military life had in store for her.

At the appointed hour, our chapel receptionist led the couple past Chaplain Z’s closed door and into my cubicle.

I greeted the engaged couple warmly and began asking them typical premarital questions. “Are you planning a family? Do you practice a faith together?”

The couple gave answers with a nervous edge, using a varied volume of two-syllable yes-sirs and no-sirs. However, as they began sharing their heart-story, they relaxed into easy smiles and comfortable chuckles.

Then, just as I asked the couple how they deal with anger in their relationship, we heard a loud crash in the office across from my cubicle. Father Z’s office door flew open, igniting the air with expletives.

Instinctively we ducked our heads. The couple remained in their seats, but like a soldier in a World War I trench, I peeked over the partition to find our profane sniper.

When I returned my attention to the couple, the wide-eyed woman asked in whispered tones, “Doesn’t that man know he’s in a chapel?”

“Oh, I’m afraid he knows,” I said.

“Why?” the airman asked. “Who is he?”

“That’s Father Z and I suppose something got him mad enough to make a preacher cuss,” I said, deadpanning the old expression.

“He’s really a nice guy,” I added, which was my way of telling the shocked couple what the Wizard of Oz said about himself – “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain,” or in this case, behind our partition.

The incident highlights questions about integrity that I’ve often asked my own parishioners over the years: “Who are you when no one is watching?” “Who are you when it doesn’t seem as though it matters?”

The answers to these questions will determine your integrity. Integrity is gauged by measuring the difference between who you are in public and who you are in private.  

Integrity means you remain the same person no matter who benefits.

Honestly, Fr. Z could be one of the kindest men you’d want to know. He was often respectful, thoughtful and compassionate. Unfortunately, his anger issues put up a smoke screen that hid his goodness from the impressionable couple.

I never did get a bigger office at Mather, and I never found out what made Father Z so mad.

However, my time there did give me a bigger sense of a compelling fact: Being an angry person in private only means that we are rehearsing the anger that will eventually gain center stage in our public lives.


Parts of this column were excerpted from Norris’s book, ‘Thriving Beyond Surviving.” His books are available for purchase on his website, Send comments to or 10556 Combie Rd. Suite 6643 Auburn, CA 95602 or via voicemail (843) 608-9715.