METETI, PANAMA — — As my deployment to Panama comes to an end this week, I’m a bit amused how my visits to worksites have influenced the language around me.

I’m not talking about the Spanish language of Panama; I’m talking about language of the colorful kind. If you thought construction workers had the worst language, you should hear military members who also are construction workers.

It’s been interesting to watch them change their demeanor as I approach. Like a speeder who comes upon a roadside police cruiser, they’ll often do some moral gyrations inspired by my presence.

For example, they may nick themselves on a tool and suddenly make mid-sentence vocabulary changes. “*&$#!” They shout. Then, upon seeing me, they say “Uh, I mean ‘Dang.’ That hurt! Sorry, chaplain.”

I’m amused because they’ll make these whiplash changes all on the pretense they are worried about offending my decency. Yet, the crazy thing is, these are the same people who will come to my tent later to make confessions that are much worse than language.

Of course, I realize the airmen are simply trying to show me respect by reversing their language. Many of us will do the same kind of verbal changes around parents or children.

But I’ve often wondered whether the changes people make around their ministers are more about a contrived image of what they think God demands of them. Do they see God as a rogue cop holding the Ten Commandments in one hand and a rifle in the other saying, “If you don’t do right, I’ll blow a hole clean through ya”?

When people do a sudden change just because I come into the room, I want to tell them, “Don’t change for me. Change for yourself.”

I want to ask them, “Does it really matter to you that I’ve discovered you aren’t the person you think that I think you should be?” Or perhaps, more to the point, “What would you risk to become the person you’re pretending to be on my behalf?”

Truth be known, I, too, can make some quick reversals in the presence of the right people. In the dining tent, I can pass up the french fry bin when I’m aware our camp doctor is standing behind me. I’ve adjusted my posture as the commander walks by. And I’ve done some extra repetitions in the gym in the presence of some very fit airmen.

The shallow changes I make are more often about what the doctor or commander represent than they are about the changes I really want to make.

The problem with making these changes in the presence of influential people is that we tend to become someone stretched and disfigured into something that doesn’t remotely resemble who God has made us to be.

Seems to me the only thing that matters at the end of the day is that we represent our own God-given image, not the flattering image we imagine others want us to be.
Bottom line is, you have to make changes for yourself, not for others. If your sudden conversion experience is all about changing for others, the changes only last as long as the presence of the influential person.

And changes that are not made for ourselves cause us to become like the convert who drunkenly stumbled into his pastor and deacon on a city sidewalk.

Observed the deacon to the pastor, “Isn’t this man one of your converts?”

“You’re right, he must be one of my converts,” replied the pastor, “because he sure doesn’t appear to be one of God’s.”