By Norris Burkes
May 26, 2020 (3/9/14)
The old veteran was sitting on the edge of his bed, hunched over his considerable frame, studying the floor tiles.
“Hello,” I called as I walked into his darkened room at the Sacramento VA Hospital in 2014.
“I’m Norris, the hospital chaplain.”
The man’s liver-spotted face flushed with a smile as he greeted me in a tone of familiarity.
I searched his expressive blue eyes and the swirling tumbleweed atop his balding head for clues of a past encounter.
He invited me to sit on the bedside chair like an old friend who’d often come to visit. “I’m so glad you came, Chaplain.”
“Pardon me, it feels like we may have met in the past,” I said.
“No, I don’t think so. But I’m a pastor too.”
I smiled, finally realizing that our familiarity came from speaking with the same pastoral pitch and ministerial mannerisms. I knew him because I was looking at myself 25 years into the future.
“Are you retired now?” I asked with obvious reference to his failing fitness.
“Are we ever really retired?” His mention of “we” was an extension of a club handshake.
“I guess not,” I said. “We definitely signed up for the duration.”
“That’s right. Ours is a lifelong service.”
During the next half hour, he unfolded 50 years, beginning with his marriage to his college sweetheart. Together, they’d started a church as well as a family. Soon, she birthed a baby girl, followed by a son.
However, not long after their son’s birth, he started turning blue. The couple called for an ambulance, but it came too late. “It was congenital,” he told me.
The tears began leaking from his reddened eyes, taking their evacuation route over bulging cheeks.
A problem in the baby’s heart shattered the heart of his parents. “It was all so long ago,” he said. His tone became apologetic, as if mystified by the source of his tears.
“You cry because it happened out of order,” I said. “You’re grieving the loss of potential, for what could have been.”
He nodded and I continued.
“There’s an old Chinese proverb about the order of things. True happiness is: Grandfather dies. Father dies. Son dies. Grandson dies.”
Yet even as I spoke, he was waving a dismissive hand. It seemed likely he’d heard this before and even more likely he’d said it to himself.
Then, as if announcing another chapter of his autobiography, he said, “There’s more.
“The cancer. My firstborn,” he stuttered. “She died when she was just 39.”
“You lost two children?” Mine was half question and half indictment of our celestial employer for expecting a man to remain in ministry after such tragedy.
I guess he caught my meaning because he said, “I’ll be in heaven ten thousand years before I’ll ever understand why.”
I sat in silence with that observation. The old preacher knew the answers were so complex that ten thousand years of deliberation wouldn’t bring any real understanding.
I suppose I could have reminded him that God “… causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45), but he likely knew that.
He didn’t need more verses; he needed to know that God still heard his pain. I reached for his hand, asked if we could tell this to God.
We prayed. We cried.
Just as he was wiping his last tear, his wife came into the room. He concluded his story by adding that he was now serving as Pastor Emeritus and advising the younger pastors.
He was right, serving God is an endless calling. But doing so with such a gaping wound to the soul brings to mind nothing short of the divine. If there’s a heavenly version of the Medal of Honor, this old vet may surely have one by now.
Norris’ books of past columns at www.thechaplain.net. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 10566 Combie Rd.
Suite 6643 Auburn, CA 95602 or voicemail (843) 608-9715.