Twenty-seven years ago, I was a newly minted Air Force chaplain when I asked my mentor, Chaplain Maj. Ron Kelling, to name the three ways chaplains get in trouble.
Kelling, a former Vietnam fighter pilot, had no trouble answering. “It’s either money or women!”
He mentioned money because military chaplains must account for the offerings received at weekly services.
“I’ll have no problem with money,” I promised.
I paused on the second part of my answer, and Kelling fixed me in a target lock to show he was waiting. “I’m happily married,” I reported, “but I can’t say I feel immune to sexual temptations.”
The truth is that if you’re reading this column on this planet, you’re susceptible to many temptations. The last time I checked, people such as Jesse Jackson Jr., Lance Armstrong and even Catholic priests are humans.
All of these men began with worthy goals and causes. They all promoted some measure of truth: Armstrong forwarded cancer research, Jackson fought for the working man and the parish priest inspired faith. But a few of them fell from grace in much the same way Icarus did when he flew too close to the sun, and the melting wax caused him to fall into the sea.
When our heroes plummet earthward, I believe there are three principles to remember.
First, real truth remains true even when spoken by a liar. For instance, Jackson’s misuse of campaign money doesn’t mean that the causes he supported weren’t worthy. Nor does Armstrong’s lying devalue grit, determination and hard work. The moral bankruptcy of a few priests shouldn’t keep us from practicing a working faith.
Second, I find that when people fail in a moral way as Armstrong did, they aren’t living strong, they are living scared. Just as fear can induce physical failure, it also can bring moral failures.
For instance, when people obsessively fear becoming poor, they will steal like Jackson. When they develop a fearful fixation against losing, they will cheat like Armstrong. When they fear losing their reputation, they will lie like the priests.
And third, at the end of the day, people will fail and we must forgive. We must forgive because we, too, have failed. We must forgive because Jesus taught, “Forgive us our trespasses as we have forgiven those who have trespassed against us.”
Of course, forgiveness doesn’t mean we have to trust again. Armstrong will suffer from the loss of trust. Jackson will likely go to jail, as will some of the priests. Only through forgiveness is truth able to shine through the flotsam of deception and failure.
The truth that remains from Armstrong’s legacy will be his charitable work. The truth that remains from Jackson’s failure is that we must never give up on making our world a better place. And the truth that remains from the priest debacle is that God is still love, even when people aren’t.
“Oh, and by the way,” my mentor said, “The third reason chaplains get in trouble is when they wear the uniform incorrectly.
I gave him a puzzled look.
“You have your hat on backwards.”
Norris Burkes is a syndicated columnist, national speaker and author of “No Small Miracles.” Visit thechaplain.net.