Chaplain Norris Burkes (copy) (copy) (copy) (copy) (copy)

Chaplain Norris Burkes. File/Staff

I celebrated my birthday this week with six decades of candles atop a cake. Fortunately, we safely executed what is known in California as a “controlled burn.”

Lately, I find myself checking the birth dates of hospice patients I visit and wondering if the patient is too young to die.

For the longest time, I assumed that anyone born in my decade is “too young to die.” I made that assumption in my 20s and I’ll probably feel the same way 20 years in the future.

On the opposite side, I often consider if the patient is really old enough to die. I mean, can one ever be considered “old enough” to die? At what age do we grow into the idea of dying?

Most people would rather die when they get “old.” But when does “old” happen? 65? 75? 90?

My experience with hospice patients is that most feel they still have things to do. I meet folks in their 90s that imply they are too young to die because they want to go back to driving, cooking or traveling.

On the other hand, I’ve heard a few patients question God as to why he’s allowed them to live so long. I know several patients beyond 80 who say they want God to “get on with it already.”

Sometimes, no matter how young or old the patient, he or she wants to die quickly. In California, they ask hospice to help them exercise their right to die by prescribing end-of-life medications.

As a chaplain, I’ve attended a lot of deaths of people too young to die: infants, children, young mothers and soldiers. Seeing those early deaths, I can only guess what my reaction would be if I contracted a terminal illness now. Would I consider myself of qualified age and be grateful for the years I had? Would I be selfish or ungrateful to pray for more time?

I suppose all this musing gives rise to the scripture from Hebrews 9:27: “It is appointed unto a man, once to die and after this the judgment.”

But the judgment I want to redirect us to is self-judgment, now, in the present tense. It’s here on this side of the dirt we must answer what we are doing with our lives.

With that in mind, I wrote the following birthday prayer asking God for just enough birthdays and just enough chances:

Help me seek forgiveness from those I’ve wronged.

Guide me to grant forgiveness to those who need your healing touch.

Help me sow seeds of love in those who feel unloved.

Show me how to infuse joy in those who are joyless.

Give me understanding to share with those who thirst for it

Most of all, help me be authentic in my witness for you.

Of course, I think the best birthday prayer is the Serenity Prayer written by the American Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.

Most of you know the first verse:

God grant me the serenity

to accept the things I cannot change;

courage to change the things I can;

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and wisdom to know the difference.

But you might not be as familiar with the remaining verse:

Living one day at a time;

enjoying one moment at a time;

accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;

taking, as He did, this sinful world

as it is, not as I would have it;

trusting that He will make all things right

if I surrender to His will;

that I may be reasonably happy in this life

and supremely happy with Him

forever in the next.

Amen.

Contact Norris Burkes at comment@thechaplain.net or 10566 Combie Road, Suite 6643, Auburn, CA 95602 or voicemail 843-608-9715.