I’ve been addressed by many names during my chaplain careers in both the military and healthcare.

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While Air Force and hospital colleagues kept to the formal title of “Chaplain,” my

Navy acquaintances called me “Chappy.” Now that I’m retired, some veterans call me “Sky Pilot” after the 1968 Eric Burdon song.

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While I’m usually cool with however folks address me, I once suggested that my Georgian waitress not call me “sweetheart.” 

I guess I was a homesick Yankee who thought that my sweetheart ought to be the only one allowed to use that moniker.

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But the salutation that always brings me a chuckle is the email addressed, “Dear Chaplin Burke.”

The greeting tells me they don’t spell any better than I do.

I know this because they’ve misspelled “chaplain” as well as my last name. (Both my first and last name end with an “s.”) 

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The extra “a” in my title, C-h-a-p-l-A-i-n, is silent and spells the difference between Charlie Chaplin, the silent actor, and Norris, the opinionated chaplain.

The only thing Chaplin had in common with chaplains is that he too honored the value of silence.

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During my yearlong chaplain residency, my blind, but bespectacled supervisor constantly told his chaplain interns: “Trust the silence. There is much to be heard outside verbal space – in the silence.”

As a chaplain, I’ve found that to be true more than a few times.

For instance, I once walked into the hospital room of a pastor’s wife whose premature twins had both died.

“We’ve been in church work for years,” the pastor said. “Why couldn’t God help us?”

For a moment, I was tempted to leave, but they needed someone to hear the case they’d built against God, so I listened.

The mother believed God had shortchanged them. Both swore they’d never return to church.

“God wasn’t fair. We deserve better,” she claimed.

“Is God a God of love?” asked the pastor who’d likely preached God’s love dozens of times. “Why does he hurt his children?”

I wanted to say, “NO. God is love. He has a purpose.” But I wasn’t entirely sure at that moment, so I remained quiet.

On another occasion, I met a pacing pastor in our hospital as he awaited his fiancé’s prognosis. The man told me how he was following his fiancé to their new home when her VW van rear-ended a street-sweeping truck.

Using the quiet empathy of a mime, I leaned into the story to hear that his fiancé was the clichéd “other woman,” the church secretary he’d left his wife for.

I don’t suspect he’d have told me much if I’d have responded with a list of Bible verses and theological criticism.

In the safety of silence between us, the defrocked pastor paused long enough to ask me his pressing question. “Is God punishing me?”

I wanted to say, “Hell yes, He is,” but I didn’t say anything. Those would have been my words of judgement, not God’s.

Neither of the pastors were really seeking an answer. They both wanted to know that despite their grief and their anger, I’d stay with them without judgment. 

James says in 1:19, “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.”

James is saying what we all instinctively know–Big talkers are hard to teach because they must constantly express their opinions.

Charlie Chaplin, like most chaplains, knew that more wisdom can be gained by listening, observing and not rushing to judgment.

By the way, my favorite title remains one accidently coined by the director of a local senior-care facility several years ago.

I entered the home ten minutes late and rushed to begin a Bible study for the group.

But we were all in such a hurry to begin that a slip of the tongue caused a slight variation in the director’s last word.

With the omission of the last letter, she told the octogenarians, “We are now ready for our “Bible stud.”

Again, another name only my wife can call me. 

She doesn’t.

But she could.

She would never.

But she could.

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 www.thechaplain.net.

*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. 

Norris Burkes
Author: Norris Burkes