“Can you say more about that?” asked my chaplain supervisor, with a sincerity that aimed at the heart of the issue.
Although his tender approach always encouraged more words, I’m rarely able to say everything I want to say in a 600-word weekly newspaper column.
I get a fair amount of questions from readers, so this week, allow me a detour to answer questions about recent columns.
First, I received questions concerning the column I wrote last month about why chaplains can’t always use Jesus’ name in a public prayer, specially when that prayer is prayed before an audience where attendance is mandatory.
I should have worked harder to say it would be a violation of the Constitution to prevent someone from praying in Jesus’ name or the name of any God they worship. However — and this is a big however — a government organization is not obliged to host any sort of prayer. If, in the custom of a civil tradition, they do chose to host a prayer, the prayer should best reflect the common belief of all.
In another column last month, I mentioned the baptism of a neighbor’s dead newborn. Some readers assumed I did the baptism and called foul because Baptist ministers only baptize those old enough to give consent.
Readers may be relieved to know that I didn’t baptize the baby. The family was Mormon, and I assumed they baptized this baby. But a reader recently reminded me Mormons don’t baptize babies either.
That’s not to say I haven’t baptized a baby. I’ve done it, and not because I believe their baptism is necessary for a heavenly home, but because the parents request it and find comfort in it.
I could refuse their request saying that my tradition forbids nonconsensual baptism. But when it comes to a dying child, it isn’t about me or my theology. It’s about giving maximum comfort and compassion to the family.
I’ve also written several articles about my work delivering death notifications to military families. Those articles repeatedly prompted the question: “How do you find the strength to do this?”
The answer is simple.
It’s not a platitude to say I only do it with God’s help. Last month, just a few hundred feet from one of those driveways, my colleague said, “Chaplain, wait, stop. Can we stop and pray again?”
With each prayer God helps me find inspiration in the ultimate sacrifice the soldier was willing to risk. As I knock — hands often shaking — I tell myself, “If these soldiers could do their job without flinching, then, by God’s grace, I can do mine.”
The soldiers did their jobs in a professional manner because they trusted that their comrades and their chaplains also would be professional as they did this unspeakable duty.
Finally, the reader asking the toughest question is my wife.
“How long can you keep doing these notifications?” she asks.
My sense is not much longer. Everyone has a limit. And having done these notifications more than 30 times in the past five years, I may be reaching my personal limit. As a great pontificator named Clint Eastwood once said in his role as Dirty Harry, “A man’s gotta know his limitations.”
But, at the end of the day, only God knows how much longer.
Well, God and my promotion board that is. Hopefully, I can say more about that soon.
Burkes is a former civilian hospital chaplain and an Air National Guard chaplain. Write firstname.lastname@example.org or visit thechaplain.net. You can also follow him on Twitter, username is “chaplain,” or on Facebook at facebook.com/norrisburkes.