It seems that whenever pastors preach to a sparse crowd, they often begin by quoting Matthew 18:20. However, they remove the verse from its context to passively express their disappointment for the low numbers. 

“This reminds me of what Jesus said,” they’ll jest. “‘For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.’”


During my years as a hospital chaplain, I often paraphrased this verse to convey my frustration for yet another staff meeting.

“Wherever there are two or more chaplains gathered in his name, there will be a chaplain staff meeting.”


Nevertheless, our hospital staff meetings could occasionally be interesting.

They were led by our Spiritual Care supervisor, Lisa Nordlander. Lisa was a petite, fiftyish woman who supervised a staff consisting of a secretary, three full-time chaplains and six chaplain interns.


One day, she sent out a message: “All hands on deck for a joint meeting of staff and interns.”


A few hours later, we assembled in a conference room where I’d like to tell you we looked like Jedi Knights perched on chairs waiting for divine wisdom from Obi-Wan Kenobi.

But on this particular day, things took a surprise turn when Lisa tossed white plastic bags on the table and asked her chaplains to each claim one. Taking the bags, we spilled their contents onto the table — a toothbrush, toothpaste, mouthwash, tongue brush and dental floss.


Ooohh kaaay. The supervisor’s husband was a dentist, but given her professional demeanor, product endorsement seemed a little beneath her.

“This is a friendly reminder,” she managed to say among the giggles, “that good dental hygiene is a part of good spiritual hygiene.”

Yes, apparently when it comes to spiritual care, oral cleanliness is next to godliness.

Lisa continued her teaching moment. “We work in close quarters,” she said, struggling to smother her erupting smile.

“Chaplains often whisper to nursing staff and lean close in their patient visits. These patients may be sensitive to certain odors, so please make sure you are well acquainted with these products.”

I can tell you we all searched the faces around the table, wondering which chaplain inspired Lisa to bring the toothbrushes.

Was it our Catholic priest who drank too much coffee?

Was it I, the one who loved the cafeteria onion rings? 

Was it the new intern snacking on tuna crackers?

We all had a side-splitting laugh over Lisa’s artful presentation of such a personal matter, but I couldn’t help but remember a gathering of 12 — the Last Supper when Jesus predicted one of his disciples (Judas) would betray him.

Like the disciples who muttered, “Is it I, Lord?” we chaplains blew into our cupped hands, taking a quick whiff and wondering, “Is it me, Lisa? Am I the reason you are saying this?”

There are times in our exchanges with people that we become pretty sure something stinks. On those occasions, what is our first reaction? Do we lean close to our friends and examine their smell first? Or do we check our own breath?

We’re not perfect and we certainly won’t always smell perfect, but our imperfection gives us two choices.

We can deny it and make others suffer or we can celebrate that we are all in the same boat. We’re all human and we all have the potential to, well, there’s no other way to say it… stink.

The truth is, we are pretty human and the spirit we breathe on people may not always be the freshest one. 

It’s something we should keep in mind as we enter the Lenten season. Take a hard look at yourself, check your spirit. Examine your intentions. And question your motives.

Ask yourself, “Am I the one who has caused the problem?” or “Am I the one who holds the solution?” These must be among the first questions we ask when we smell something not quite right.

Which leads me to my final paraphrase of Matthew 18:20 – “Wherever two or more are gathered in his name, there will always be imperfections.”  

Syndicated columnist Chaplain Norris Burkes began his chaplain career with both the active-duty Air Force and the Air National Guard until his retirement in 2014. He later served as a board-certified healthcare chaplain at Sutter Memorial, Kaiser, Methodist and Mather VA hospitals and continues to work with area Hospice. His column is syndicated to more than 35 accredited news outlets. Read past columns at

*Views expressed in published guest commentaries are those of the author or submitting organization and do not necessarily represent those of Folsom Times or All Town Media, LLC.