Last Thanksgiving, my wife, Becky, challenged her second-grade class to write thank-you notes to those people for whom they were grateful.
"How about God?" suggested a towheaded boy.
"Well," said my wife, pausing for clarity in a public school environment, "Maybe you can save those thank-yous for your bedtime prayers."
Suddenly, a pigtailed pontificator stood and pointed her accusing finger toward a little boy who had recently shared that he was Buddhist.
"He can't!" she proclaimed. "He doesn't believe in God."
"That was rude!" Becky said. Then, not one to miss a teachable moment, Becky turned to her whiteboard and added the girl's name to a discipline list.
Years earlier, I introduced a similarly teachable moment to an Air National Guard commander when she dropped by for an impromptu visit.
"How are you, chaplain?" she asked from outside my open office door.
Keeping protocol, I stood to answer; but perhaps since I measured at least a foot taller than her, she insisted I keep my seat.
"What are you working on today?" she asked.
"I'm trying to write a retirement prayer for a squadron commander, but I'm having trouble finding the right fit."
"Yes," I said. "The retiree is a Buddhist, but since our audience will likely be Christian, I'll need something acceptable to both."
"I'm thinking about using this Buddhist poem our retiree has selected for the ceremony handout."
I passed it to her and watched her lips silently move, her facial contortions building on every word.
"You should use a Christian prayer," she suggested. "After all this is a Christian Air Force."
Now it was my turn to wear a disappointed expression.
"You don't see it that way?" she asked.
Like Becky, I paused to reflect. Then, recognizing the career-shortening possibilities of my answer, I respectfully stood to share my thoughts.
"No, ma'am. I'm sorry, but I don't."
While I can't recall my exact words, it was something like this: "Ma'am, we serve in an Air Force that is comprised primarily of Christians, but I don't think that our majority status makes us a Christian Air Force."
I forged ahead. "We are sworn to protect the Christian majority just as much as we pledged to protect and serve the minorities of all faiths."
Then, I took my seat, sure that my position expressed the principles in the 10th chapter of John's gospel.
Most Christians recognize this chapter as the one where Jesus so famously introduces himself as the "good shepherd." However, Jesus also includes a cryptic saying that seems to oppose those who sequester themselves in theologically gated communities.
"I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They, too, will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd."
Unfortunately, neither of the two people mentioned in today's column seemed to get that part of the scripture.
At the end of that school day, my wife phoned the girl's mother to share her thoughts on pluralism. Not surprisingly, the mother gave an answer not unlike her daughter's.
As for my commander, she expressed no further objections to the prayer.
Unfortunately, five years after my conversation with the commander, a malignant brain tumor put a tragic end to her promising career. My guess is that her best teachable moment came when she was welcomed into heaven with salutes and open arms from all of Jesus' flock.
Norris Burkes is a syndicated columnist, national speaker and author of "No Small Miracles." He is an Air National Guard chaplain. You may leave recorded comments at 843-608-9715, or email them to firstname.lastname@example.org, or send comments to P.O. Box 247, Elk Grove, CA 95759. Visit thechaplain.net.
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