METETI, Panama — While helping to lay concrete block for a school here, a soldier confided, “You don’t seem like most ministers I’ve met.”
“Gee, thanks,” I said feigning offense.
“No, I don’t mean it in a bad way,” he said. “It’s just that some of the pastors I’ve met seem so . . .” his voice trailed as he searched for a word he could use with a chaplain.
“Stuffy? Unreachable?” I suggested having heard this criticism of some colleagues.
“Yeah. That’s it,” he said, “You’re not stuffy.”
It was a left-handed compliment that I’ve heard more than once in my life. There have been times, however, when it wasn’t intended to be complimentary.
For instance, last month, a reader took offense to my description of the gulf spill as a “damn gusher.” Readers have scolded me over my impatience with a waitress, or my bachelor gambling on the eve of my wedding, and even the retrieval of my soiled chaplain’s hat from a toilet.
Most of the critics suggested these weren’t things a “man of God” should say or do.
Seven years ago, while working as a hospital chaplain, I wrote a column on the lustful thoughts I experienced during a haircut from a female barber. All of my chaplain colleagues heard the disapproving message left by a reader on our department voicemail.
“How can a 45-year-old minister have such thoughts?” she asked. “You ought to be ashamed of yourself!”
Nevertheless, I keep writing, because most readers tell me they gain hope from hearing about the human side of struggling with faith. I even get positive e-mails from atheists and agnostics who tell me of their struggles. That bothers my pastor a bit, but he understands I’m different.
I try to show readers a human Jesus. In fact, I’ve always said if you can’t imagine Jesus stepping behind a tree to relieve himself, then you’re not seeing him as human. (Here come the e-mails.)
Eight years ago, when my column began in FLORIDA TODAY, then-features editor Tom Clifford named the column “Spirituality in Everyday Life.” He saw what I took for granted. Namely, if you can’t make faith work in everyday places where you live and work, then what good is it?
I say you can leave that type of unworkable faith in the churches that have those stuffy ministers.
I suppose there is one area, however, in which I am like most ministers, even the stuffy ones. Like most ministers, I have a fear of disappointing others. It’s the personality type that goes with the job, I suppose. It’s a normal reaction to what we do, but it can sometimes cause us to sell off a bigger piece of ourselves than we should.
At the end of the day, the Apostle Paul reminds us: “Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you . . . his good purpose.”
Which is a way of saying, simply, that we are all human and your minister, rabbi or faith group leader will get dressed like we all do — one leg at a time.
I’ll have to admit, however, sometimes I get dressed too quickly as I did one morning while putting on my uniform. I accidentally reversed the position of my nametag with my chaplain’s cross, pinning them over the wrong breast pocket. A young airman approached and sincerely asked, “Are chaplains different?”
I gave her a fairly puzzled look and she asked, “Do chaplains get to wear their nametag on the reverse pocket?”
“Uh, yes,” I said, “I suppose some of us are different.”