August 6, 2016 by Norris Burkes

Last week, I shocked a few readers by asserting that faith is the most powerful F-word on the planet. I named four essential elements of faith: worship, gratitude, prayer and afterlife, and promised to use my August columns to highlight each one.

This week, I may surprise a few more readers by sharing how my father’s middle finger gave me a lesson in gratitude — or perhaps I should say his lack of a middle finger.

My father was working a late-night job in a bookbinding factory when he got too close to the machinery and lost the top half of his middle finger. Unfortunately, there was no way to reattach a digit in those days, so he simply went home with his left hand wrapped in a bloodied bandage.

As the years passed, my father learned to accommodate his minor physical impairment. In his professional life, he used gestures to minimize the obvious gap in his fingers. In social situations, he minimalized it with jokes saying that my mom bit it off. Physically, he used the stump like a second thumb in his job as an electrician.

But he did more than adapt — he thrived. He used the handicap as a spiritual tool to show loving gratitude for his children.

The love often expressed itself best Saturday nights after watching WWF wrestling on our black-and-white TV. That’s when my siblings and I would leap onto my father’s back and entangle him with 12 skinny arms and legs. While my brother and I twisted his arms, my sister yanked on his prematurely balding head.

At first he’d feign defeat, but then he’d suddenly announce the arrival of his “secret weapon.” That’s what he called his dwarfed middle finger as he deployed it as the most pernicious tickling device known to kid-kind.

“No! Not fair!” we’d scream as he used his stealthy, silly weapon to target our vulnerable ticklish spots. When he grew tired of tickling, he’d thump our chest with it, until we rolled off his side in gut-retching laughter.

Was his stump really a secret weapon? Or was it a just half a finger?

I guess the answer to that question is largely determined by one’s use of gratitude. We live in a world where people routinely use that finger to show vulgar ingratitude toward the existence of another. They use it as the gavel of thankless judgment. They use it to offend.

If you’re tempted to offend with the middle finger, Jesus oddly suggested amputation. “If your right hand offends you,” he says, “cut it off.” Of course, no serious biblical scholar would suggest literal amputation. However, that scripture often causes me to think of my father’s missing finger.

When a youthful accident removed half a digit, he used what remained of his cursing finger to infuse love into the grateful and giggling souls of his children. At the end of his short 65 years, he transformed his loss into something less a curse and much more a blessing. That grateful view of his finger is one that the world would profit from seeing more often — and it remains one that I sorely miss.

Note: Read this story and others in the September release of my third book, “Thriving Beyond Surviving – Stories of Resilience From a Hospital Chaplain.”

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